Ten years ago when Vanessa Murray was walking down the aisle as the bride to be, her vision suddenly went blurry but not from tears. Murray later learned that she had Stargardt disease. Since then, the 52-year-old has learned to live with the disease, and she’s set to graduate from Florence-Darlington Technical College’s Human Services program on Thursday, May 16 with an Associate in Applied Science.
Graduating from college is challenging for anyone, but trying to earn a higher education with extremely limited eyesight seems like an insurmountable feat; however, Vanessa isn’t letting the disability hold her back from achieving her dreams.
For a long time, Vanessa didn’t really know why her eyesight was going away. She knew something was wrong, but when a close friend did some research, Murray found out that she had Stargardt disease or Stargardt macular dystrophy. The incurable disease makes it difficult for Murray to clearly see at times. She struggles to read small print or see for long distances. Once a business owner, Murray always had issues seeing her customer’s faces. As the disease worsened, she had difficulties even recognizing family members when they’d come to visit.
“At least for four or five years, I didn’t even accept that I had visual limitations until I was just uncomfortable being in public and people having access to me, and I couldn’t recognize them,” Murray said. “With the condition, it took away so much of my vision trying to read, that it was hard for me to read to find out what was going on.”
Murray reached out to the South Carolina Commission for the Blind for assistance. She had two choices: start vocational training or return to school. Murray is a graduate of Wilson High School but returning to an educational setting after a nearly 30-year hiatus was certainly an intimidating thought. When Murray learned that Florence-Darlington Technical College offered services to assist students with disabilities, she immediately visited the college, and that’s when she met Student Disabilities Coordinator, Rhonda Tuten who assisted her through the process of enrolling in 2017.
“I immediately came to Tech just for that information, because at this time, it was kind of a light at the end of the tunnel,” Murray said. “When I came in, I was introduced to Mrs. Rhonda Tuten. What she did was she took me through the whole process. She spoke to me, and she took me through the application process that same day. I was tested that same day. Passed the test, and I was enrolled in college that same day. It was like life. It gave me life and a purpose. It was everything to me.”
Beginning classes at Florence-Darlington Technical College was certainly an exciting time for Murray, but it was also a challenging one, because she couldn’t see well enough to read the classroom boards or regular size font. Murray’s instructors helped her, and every department that she visited helped her understand the text that was printed on each printed document.
Murray said, “Almost every department in this school had some way of helping me and assisting me.
“These courses, and those instructors, they were the best. They taught it to me in a way I was able to apply to myself. They were patient with me with my vision. I was given accommodations for testing.”
While at Florence-Darlington Technical College, Murray learned about devices and aides that could substantially assist her efforts in the classroom and at home. More specifically, Murray carries around an electronic magnifying device that zooms in to only a few words at a time and allows her to read.
“I’m a person that loved to read,” Murray said. “I was a bookworm, so I loved to read.”
She continued and said, “To realize that you can’t read anymore, you know that’s kind of devastating. Not only that, but people take for granted how much you have to read during the day.”
Florence-Darlington Technical College’s Online College enabled her to take classes at home, where she had a 55-inch television that alleviated the strain of reading a few words at a time on the handheld magnifying device.
“Those classes online were everything that I needed, because I was able to blow up the stuff as much as I needed to,” Murray said.
Murray now feels more alive than she has in quite some time. She never thought that college was an option. She failed English on two occasions, but she never gave up and overcame the hurdle to pass the class. Now, she even has an internship with the City of Florence identifying crumbling structures, and she is set to graduate from Florence-Darlington Technical College in May.
“I was just able to become whole again,” said Murray about her experience at Florence-Darlington Technical College.
No matter what a student’s hurdle may be Murray encourages them to never give up and to use the services that are available.
“I would tell them to stay encouraged and to seek and use the services that the school offers,” Murray said. “Student disability, I would encourage them to use those services, and I would encourage them to make the instructors aware of the special accommodations that are needed.”
Florence-Darlington Technical College’s 2019 Commencement Ceremony will get underway at the Florence Center at 6:30 p.m. on May 16.