Legally blind Tech student has design in mind

Legally blind Georgia Tech student, Nola Timmins, plays with her seeing eye dog and best friend, Brizzy.  PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.
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Legally blind Georgia Tech student, Nola Timmins, plays with her seeing eye dog and best friend, Brizzy. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Nola Timmins has always had a flair for design.

As a child, when she and her mom would visit friends, she’d draw the floorplans of their homes.

“Everyone would tell me I should be an architect,” Nola, 20, said. “I would say: ‘I don’t know. I hear it is hard.’”

By third grade, Nola had settled on a career in architecture, despite being legally blind.

“She has always been a very determined young lady,” said her mom, Cheryl Timmins, a New Orleans real estate agent. “That’s just who she is.”

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Portrait of Legally blind Georgia Tech student, Nola Timmins, with her guide dog and best friend, Brizzy. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Portrait of Legally blind Georgia Tech student, Nola Timmins, with her guide dog and best friend, Brizzy. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.
caption arrowCaption
Portrait of Legally blind Georgia Tech student, Nola Timmins, with her guide dog and best friend, Brizzy. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Today, Nola is a sophomore at Georgia Tech, majoring in her dream field. Because of the pandemic, she finished high school and started at Tech online.

But this year, she’s physically on campus and sharing a three-bedroom dorm suite with two other roommates and her guide dog, Brizzy.

A small-for-her-breed Labrador retriever, Brizzy helps Nola maneuver Tech’s busy downtown campus.

“She’s like my absolute best friend,” Nola said. “I love her so much.”

Nola has genetic and as-yet incurable optic nerve atrophy, a condition typically diagnosed in children at 4 to 6 years old.

She was adopted from China when she was 15 months by Timmins, who, in a “lightbulb moment,” decided to become a single parent in her 40s.

Nola was depicted as a toddler who loved to sing and dance. But the tiny girl Timmins found when she traveled to China was nothing like that. Nola was malnourished, living in an orphanage, sharing a steel crib with three other babies, unable to pull herself up much less dance, and developmentally delayed.

After eight weeks and plenty of nourishment and love, Nola was able to walk, Timmins said.

Doctor after doctor visit followed, and, around age 5, the family learned Nola had optic nerve atrophy and also was gifted.

The latter has shown in Nola’s ability to learn almost any skill, her mother said.

caption arrowCaption
Legally blind Georgia Tech student, Nola Timmins, walks around the campus with the help of her guide dog and best friend, Brizzy. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Legally blind Georgia Tech student, Nola Timmins, walks around the campus with the help of her guide dog and best friend, Brizzy. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.
caption arrowCaption
Legally blind Georgia Tech student, Nola Timmins, walks around the campus with the help of her guide dog and best friend, Brizzy. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Nola was reading at 4. She knits, crochets, does aerial arts (think Cirque du Soleil), and spent four summers learning to create stained glass art.

She’s self-taught in origami, the Japanese art of folding paper into decorative shapes and figures. One of her origami creations is on display at Massachusetts Eye and Ear in Boston, where she’s part of a research study.

Much of the world is blurry to Nola. She’s had at least three major step-downs in her vision since her original diagnosis, her mother said.

“It’s not as cut and dry as she can or can’t see,” Cheryl Timmins said.

For Nola to be able to read on an iPad or computer, the font or typeface must be a minimum of 40 points, her mother said.

“But if there’s not enough contrast between the font and the background, it doesn’t matter how big it is, she can’t see it,” Timmins said.

caption arrowCaption
Legally blind Georgia Tech student, Nola Timmins, walks around the campus with the help of her guide dog and best friend, Brizzy. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Legally blind Georgia Tech student, Nola Timmins, walks around the campus with the help of her guide dog and best friend, Brizzy. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.
caption arrowCaption
Legally blind Georgia Tech student, Nola Timmins, walks around the campus with the help of her guide dog and best friend, Brizzy. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Nola already has seven architectural classes under her belt at Tech. Some classes have been hard, and there have been challenges with accommodations for her disability since preschool, she said.

But Nola – who Tech’s administrators say is likely just the second legally blind student in their architectural program – is determined.

“I am going to prove [the nay-sayers] wrong,” Nola said.

She’s already thinking ahead to graduate school and a career which she hopes will involve designing homes for the disabled.

“I’m not really sure at this moment what that looks like,” Nola said. “I may be designing homes not necessarily just for people with vision problems but also for people with other disabilities.”

Mom is rooting for and betting on Nola, who was so determined in high school to spend a semester studying in Israel that she sought scholarships and held fundraisers to cover the trip’s roughly $20,000 costs herself.

“She rarely ever has an oh-poor-me attitude. She pretty much takes her challenges in stride,” Timmins said. “She always manages to make me proud.”

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