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Adult-onset blindness has not stopped Shirley Steward-Jones from pursuing a master’s in counseling

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Shirley Steward-Jones walks up the driveway outside of her college residence, accompanied by the tapping of her cane, her writing tutor Anna Maria Johnson, and her own hearty laughter. Steward-Jones is in the middle of a story, when she is interrupted by Johnson, who alerts her to the presence of a truck in the driveway. Steward-Jones shakes her head, steps into the grass, and expertly maneuvers around the parked truck.

For Steward-Jones, a blind student in EMU’s master of counseling program, life has presented a series of obstacles much bigger than a parked truck. Yet, she has found herself equal to all of them with a little help and a lot of tenacity.

The great challenge of Steward-Jones’ life began when she was diagnosed at age 27 with the inherited degenerative disease Retinitis pigmentosa, which often results in blindness. Upon hearing the news, Steward-Jones says that she was seized with anger and a desire to deny what the doctors told her. Reality soon set in, however, as Steward-Jones first lost her night vision, then her peripheral vision, and finally saw her world dissolve into the light of total blindness, an experience which Steward-Jones describes as having a flashlight trained on her eyes.

Following her loss of sight, Steward-Jones said she was nicknamed “the gypsy” for living all over the country and in Japan, bouncing from one of her four children’s homes to another, until her son finally told her, “Mom you can’t just sit here and be blind, you have to do something.” Steward-Jones was soon attending the Colorado Center for the Blind in Littleton, Colorado.

At the center, Steward-Jones relearned how to live her life. Learning to cook, clean, and do everyday tasks was a major part of the school’s curriculum, as was navigating the town. For her final test, Steward-Jones was dropped off at an unknown location in Littleton and needed to navigate her way back to the school. Upon arriving back at the school, Steward-Jones was greeted with congratulations from her fellow students and ringing bells to celebrate her accomplishment.

Since that time, Steward-Jones has navigated around many obstacles that have nothing to do with sight. One of her most important accomplishments was a bachelor’s degree from George Mason University in Northern Virginia, which allowed her to enter the master’s in counseling program at EMU.

Now in her 60s, Steward-Jones is facing new challenges on EMU’s campus. One of these challenges is the difficulty of the coursework, which Steward-Jones finds to be, “like medical school in terms of different terminology and applications.” Steward-Jones faces additional challenges in navigating the campus and completing assignments due to her blindness, which is why she is on a three-year, rather than two-year, track to complete her degree. But “we [blind people] can do most jobs with a little bit of assistance and a little bit of technology,” she says.

The help that Steward-Jones receives from technology usually comes in the form of a voice. From wristwatches to computers, everything in Steward-Jones’ apartment seems capable of talking. Often the voice belongs to JAWS, a computer program which can read everything from file names to websites in its mechanical voice. Steward-Jones uses this program to write papers, browse the Internet, and read emails.

On the human side, Steward-Jones has received help from the EMU faculty and staff. Steward-Jones said that she chose EMU because she felt that a Christian university would be more inclined to go the extra mile to help somebody with a disability. So far, Steward-Jones believes that she has experienced this Christian concern in the form of the people whom she calls angels. Those who have worked to make Steward-Jones’ time at EMU possible include: Teresa Haase, director of the MA in counseling program who is Steward-Jones’ advisor; Angela Russell, administrative assistant in the program; Joy Martin, coordinator of student disability support; Cheryl Armstrong, director of auxiliary support; Bruce Emerson, food services director; and her tutor and reader, Anna Maria Johnson. Stewart-Jones gives special thanks to Lee Jankowski, a fellow counseling student for most of the 2013-14 year, who not only walked her between classes and her residence every day, but would jovially ask questions like, “Do we have trash to take out today?” And then he would collect her trash and deposit it in the outside bin.

For Steward-Jones, these relationships are unique in their closeness and warmth, but she stays open to meeting new people. “I know that at some point I’m going to get lost,” she says with her characteristic hearty laugh, “but somebody will help me and I’ll meet somebody new.” Her advice to people who hesitate to approach her: “It’s better not to grab my arm. If you ask if I’d like help, I’ll almost always accept. Just extend your right elbow to me, and I’ll grab it.”

With this type of help and her usual tenacity, Steward-Jones hopes to be working as a counselor after graduating. “Do I expect to actually practice this profession when I finish this degree? With God’s grace, yes.”

2 Responses to "Adult-onset blindness has not stopped Shirley Steward-Jones from pursuing a master’s in counseling"

  1. Lee Jankowski says:

    What are some of the special things the Masters in Counseling Program and EMU have done to make sure Shirley is fully able to attend classes on her own and attain the needed information necessary for her to complete a degree and become a licensed counselor? What are some of the wonderful changes made by the Professors to make sure Shirley receives an equal education with all the sighted students? What have her professors learned from Shirely that offers them a special understanding of being blind and relating to the world around them as a blind person?

    • Bonnie Price Lofton says:

      Lee: These are great tips for a follow-up story in about a year — at the mid-way point in Shirley’s studies. Actually the writer had more information, but he needed to keep the article down to a readable length, as we try to do with all of our news blogs. As it is, the story runs twice as long as the Associated Press now recommends for its news stories. But we’ll simply do another one. Maybe even a third one when Shirley graduates! Something to look forward to! I hope Shirley also writes her autobiography one day. — Bonnie