Blind World Magazine

After vision loss, teen reinvented herself.

February 8, 2006.
The State - Columbia,SC,USA.

ColumnistJessica Smith was rubbing her left eye and noticed the world had blurred. So the ninth grader switched, closing her right eye, opening the left, and the world snapped back into focus.

She didn’t tell her mother. But a few months later, in December, Smith realized she really was losing her vision.

The optic nerve was degenerating, doctors said.

By 10th grade, the Dillon teen couldn’t read text, even with a magnifying glass. An A student, she was distressed by her teachers’ response.

“They would let me sit in the class with nothing to do.”

Things got worse before they got better.

Smith is 25 now, an employee with the federal Defense Finance and Accounting Service in Arlington, Va. Today she will accept a national award, the Scholastic Achievement Award, from Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic. On Feb. 22, she will meet Laura Bush at the White House.

One of three national winners, Smith will receive $6,000.

RFB&D is a national nonprofit organization, that began in 1948 recording textbooks for blind World War II veterans. Today, RFB&D offers an educational lending library for people who can’t read standard print, whether because of a learning disability or a physical impairment.

Smith and her mother, Barbara Jackson, make an indefatigable team.

When Smith’s schooling stalled, “I let her know it wasn’t her fault. Even if they couldn’t do anything, that didn’t mean she couldn’t do anything. ‘Use what you have,’ I said,” recalls Jackson, 47.

When the two couldn’t get what they needed from Smith’s school, Smith transferred to South Florence High School — a two-hour ride.

“It was hard, very hard, and we kept going,” Jackson says. “I was getting frustrated, but I couldn’t show that to her. If I told her not to give up, I couldn’t give up either.”

Smith’s second high school offered a resource teacher who worked with five visually impaired students. “She would make sure we got assignments; she would read to us. There were tape recorders and machines to enlarge type,” Smith says.

Still, it was difficult. We live in a visual culture, and it was hard to relinquish reliance on sight.

“You don’t realize how much you depend on sight,” Smith says. “On tests, some of the questions are really long, and you have to retain the information until the end.

“I’d have to say, ‘Could you repeat that?’ And whoever was reading would get so frustrated. There might be 50 questions, and each one would have to be read twice.”

Smith’s vision was completely gone by the time she was 16, and other problems manifested. Her legs would feel numb; her balance was going.

Then, in July and again in September 1996, she experienced temporary paralysis.

The diagnosis changed. Smith had multiple sclerosis, an inflammatory disease of the brain and spinal cord that is difficult to diagnose and erratic and unpredictable in its progress.

RFB&D offered an intellectual rescue: No more annoying her teachers with requests for repeats. No more waiting for tutors.

With the audio books, Smith could study whenever and however she wanted, listen as long as she wanted. She could do research herself for term papers. She was independent again.

“Our mission is to provide educational material and create opportunities,” says Libby Anne Inabinet, state director of South Carolina for RFB&D.

The S.C. Department of Education counts 54,663 students as learning disabled, visually impaired or disabled by other health problems.

RFB&D provides a digital lending library and, with its equipment, books can be searched. A student can go straight to a particular sentence or map or chart. And the textbooks are small and portable: One CD can hold an entire book.

Schools, or individuals, register and pay an annual fee for access to the 109,000 audio textbooks. In 2005, RFB&D distributed 258,918 audio books nationally; in South Carolina, 2,351.

Smith not only graduated from high school, she enrolled at Francis Marion University in Florence.

With training from the S.C. Commission for the Blind, Smith learned how to get around campus. She completed a semester, then a relapse kept her from school for three semesters.

She returned in a wheelchair. A friend drove her to school; other friends pushed her wheelchair from class to class.

That lasted two years, until the day her mom’s car key broke in the lock and the wheelchair couldn’t be retrieved.

“I had to go to school,” says Smith. “I got my cane, and my friends would guide me. I walked very slowly, and they had patience with me.”

Smith earned a bachelor’s in business administration and graduated with honors, her grade point average 3.95.

“I kept pushing her,” Jackson says. “I would say, ‘This is not the end but the beginning. God is going to use your life to teach others.”

That happened with someone important: Mom herself.

Jackson, a single parent who works in a textile factory, will go back to school. She hopes to start with an associate degree and end up doing social work.

“I can’t talk the talk and not walk the walk,” she says.

Smith is going back to school, too. She plans to use her award money for a graduate degree.

She says, with great pleasure, “I always wanted to obtain a profession. I earn my keep like anyone else.”

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