Yorktown's Agni Overcomes Cerebral Palsy, Blindness to Earn Degrees

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Kenny Agni at his SUNY Purchase graduation Credits: Jean Agni
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YORKTOWN, N.Y. - A typical college freshman can expect certain obstacles, but for Kenny Agni it was more than homesickness and late nights cramming for exams. His first year at Westchester Community College in 2008 included 10 hospitalizations and seven brain surgeries due to complications of cerebral palsy. Due to the condition, Agni is legally blind.

Agni, a 2007 Yorktown High School graduate, earned an associate’s degree in liberal arts humanities at WCC with one of the highest grade point averages in his class. Now 27, Agni has graduated SUNY Purchase with a 3.8 GPA.

Agni was born prematurely along with his twin brother, Timmy. Both were born with hydrocephalus, the increase of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain, which causes swelling. Agni has what’s called communicating hydrocephalus, where the fluid is able to drain mostly on its own but requires a shunt, a plastic tube that carries the fluid to other parts of the body where it can be absorbed. Complications with his shunt system, and a brain hemorrhage due to swelling after a surgery, accounted for the 10 hospitalizations in 2008.

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His brother, Timmy, requires two shunts and is mostly non-verbal, Agni said. In 2009, Timmy moved to a group home. Having his twin farther away than usual was another roadblock along the way to getting his degree.

But Agni has always been a model student, and remained motivated throughout college to earn his degree.

“I wanted to keep up with my able-bodied peers in the regular setting,” Agni said. “That kept me motivated.”

Being visually impaired, however, often made the process of completing schoolwork more time-consuming.

Agni reads braille and uses audio programs to garner information from texts books. He has a braille keyboard with an audio function that broadcasts the words on the screen out loud. If he types a message or document, he can then have it repeated back to him to check his work.

Both Agni and his mother, Jean, said the Yorktown Central School District was incredible while Agni was growing up. He said they provided his papers in braille and offered any assistance he needed along the way. The time-consuming part of his assignments would be when Jean assisted him in transcribing his answers in braille so he could follow along the next day in class. There were also occasions where his braille laptop would malfunction and his mother would assist him in translating things.

“There were many late nights where we were both tired, but we knew we had to finish the essay by the next day,” Agni said. “I don’t think I would have been able to do as well as I did without her.”

As he got older and acquired his associate’s degree, his passion for music and his curiosity about the Jewish faith led him to pursue a degree in liberal studies with a minor in Jewish studies.

While Agni gives a lot of credit to his mom and his aide throughout college, Tim Brunelle, he is hard on himself and humble about his strong work ethic. He said that he wished he could go back and take certain tests over again, despite grades in the 90s, because he knows he could have done better.

Another example of his driven personality is the day he insisted on making his way through a blizzard while accompanied by Brunelle. They made their way to the campus only to find out the test had been cancelled while they were en route. He was the only one of his classmates who had shown up.

“I wanted to get ahead because I know having a college degree is a good stepping stone for employment,” Agni said.

Brunelle said he is very fond of Agni and refers to him as the Batman to his Robin. He enjoyed the eight years they spent together during Agni’s time at college.

“Kenny would always get the class interacting,” he said. “He would always answer questions and had his hand up high. He’s truly a person who has it together; other students looked to him to get the conversation started. Kenny was so popular at each college and everybody knew him. He is a big inspiration to a lot of people.”

Agni hopes to pursue higher education and is still weighing his options at this time.

In the meantime, Agni is working at the Prospector Theater, a non-profit organization in Ridgefield, Conn., which specifically employs people with disabilities.

Agni said he is enjoying his time there and has made some friends. Making friends came easy to Agni when he was young, though as he got older he found that socializing could sometimes be difficult because most people use visual cues and his impaired vision doesn’t always allow him to do that. Issues like that have made Agni a passionate advocate for people with disabilities. He has spoken to classes about cerebral palsy, something he said he would like to do again.

“I think if we can change society’s perceptions of people with disabilities, it might be easier for kids who need to be in self-contained classes to integrate into mainstream classes,” he said. “I was lucky because the kids in town were great.”

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