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Blind cheerleader sees sport in different light

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CLEVELAND, Ohio -- 16-year-old Alyssa Zehe sees the world in a different way than most... literally.

She is legally blind, but you wouldn’t know it by talking to her. Zehe is like many teenage girls, but she is far from average. She is a competitive cheerleader for Elite Ohio Extreme. Zehe tumbles like her fellow cheerleaders and is judged with the same criteria. The difference is, Zehe can only see in black, white, and grey, with a significant blur and in two dimension.

“Most people keep their eyes open, but I just close my eyes and feel where I am. I just see their shadows,” Zehe said.

She makes it sound easy, but can you imagine flipping 180 degrees with minimal vision? Zehe has Achromatopsia.

“It is an inherited genetic disease that does not allow cones to develop in her eyes,” Zehe’s Intervention Specialist Kelly Breunig said.

Achromatopsia patients don’t have functioning cone cells, so when the eyes are exposed to bright lights, they become overwhelmed. Bright lights don’t stop Zehe though; she competes in front of intense stage lighting.

“When we throw the girls in the air, it’s hard to see. I have to focus really hard to catch them,” she said.

Competing is challenging, both on the mats and in the classroom. New technology has made life easier for Zehe. She now carries a computer screen to each class so she can control what she sees. The device has a magnifying tool so Zehe can focus in on what she needs to study.

“I got to see my teachers’ facial expressions for the first time,” she said.

Zehe also has enlarged text books to help her see the words.

“I don’t have to squint,” Zehe said. “I like the big books a lot.”

On top of competing with her cheer team, going to school, and having a boyfriend, Zehe spends her free time coaching cheerleaders with disabilities. One of her favorite cheerleaders is Emily Lezon.

“I sort of remember where I need to go, but she is just there to guide me,” Lezon said. “Whenever I see her at practice I just light up.”

Zehe’s mother lights up watching her, too. Bernadette Melendez said she has never treated her daughter like someone with a disability. There is nothing Zehe can’t do in her mother’s eyes. Bernadette says her daughter’s disability is her best quality.

“She doesn’t see materialistic things,” Zehe’s mother said. “She sees people for who they are.”

This story, from our Ohio-affiliate WJW, was written by Reporter Allie LaForce.