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"Oh yeah, I've been there"

- April 23, 2008

Shelley Adams
Shelley Adams and Buena. (Nick Pearce Photo)

As Shelley Adams walked across the stage of the Rebecca Cohn to accept her Bachelor of Social Work degree, she was surprised to hear applause. It was scattered here and there until it seemed everyone in the packed auditorium was clapping. Unnerved, she kept on walking, one hand steady on the harness of her guide dog Buena.

“It was unexpected,” says the 27-year-old Dartmouth resident, who was able to get a job in her field even before she graduated last fall. “I didn’t know anyone there besides my parents and my husband.”

But a dog will always get attention, especially one as beautiful as Buena, a Labrador retriever with a glossy black coat and sad eyes. Ms. Adams was worried Buena would sniff the chancellor — as it was, her companion for the past year groaned loudly as if bored during the speech by an honorary degree recipient.

The applause? She knows she got it because her vision is impaired. But to her, it’s not a big deal, just a part of life. She was diagnosed with the degenerative eye disease Retinitis Pigmentosa when she was two, after her grandmother decided a trip to the doctor was in order. “She needs someone to look at her legs,” she remembers her grandmother saying, “She keeps tripping over things.”

Still, going to university when you are visually impaired is a challenge, she admits. For example, getting her reading done was a major production: she’d have to scan textbook chapters and then have the computer read them out to her.  “The computer isn’t the most expressive reader,” says Ms. Adams dryly. “There were a few times when my head hit the keyboard — it put me right to sleep.”

Another problem was that sometimes her reading packages consisted of photocopies of articles—or photocopies of photocopies. “They wouldn’t scan at all,” she sighs.

But she was able to complete her degree by distance education. She found her professors in the Department of Social Work to be accommodating and sensitive to her needs. 

She thinks living with vision loss makes her a better social worker. Since last spring, she has been working as the registration and referral co-ordinator for the CNIB and does most of her work over the telephone.

“Everyone I talk to is adjusting to vision loss. If I feel it would be beneficial, I do disclose (I am also living with vision loss.) But I do understand what they’re going through. It’s very easy to empathize. Oh yeah, I’ve been there.” 


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