“I had stopped being the outgoing, vivacious, do-it-all person. But now I’m grateful for my blindness—the catalyst to my education. Learning Ally was my window back into the world.” Graduate student in rehab counseling, mother to six grown children and mentor to a child with dyslexia: Susan Pelbath’s journey back to herself—and her far reaching gifts to others—embody the holiday spirit.
At the age of 10, vivacious Susan Pelbath was diagnosed with macular degeneration. Although she ended up having no sight in the center of each eye and legally blind, the young Susan took her diagnosis in stride and persevered by accessing large print books, excelling in athletics, and eventually marrying at age 19.
Having four children by the age of 25 and also raising her niece and nephew, Susan later became a full-time instructional aide for young adults with learning challenges at a local high school, who quickly “got under her skin” in the best way. But Susan’s life could have taken a very different turn when she developed retinitis pigmentosa and suddenly went totally blind at around age 40.
“During that process of becoming almost totally blind, I kept working, raising children, losing the ability to do things for myself but somehow managing and basically ignoring it. And pretty soon, I found myself getting fearful, not able to read anything, making mistakes, and I didn’t have the technique, the skill, the ability; I was in denial. I ignored it until I couldn’t ignore it any more. And when I retired from teaching seven or eight years ago, I started withdrawing and by then, I had become afraid—I was mourning the loss of who I had been. I had stopped being the outgoing, vivacious, do-it-all person. I became dependent, which I hated!
I thought to myself, now I can go to school! I can read my books! I can read and learn how to do the internet!"
“And then I got some good counseling, but eventually found myself completely bored out of my mind! So I told my counselor at the Department of Rehabilitation that I wanted to go back to work. But I told them, ‘I don’t know how to learn! I don’t know how to be taught as a blind person.’ And that’s when I was sent to the Davidson Program for Independence in Los Angeles to learn new living skills, and they introduced me to Learning Ally.
Susan’s trajectory brought her to Mira Costa Community College, and then to California State University San Marcos where she graduated summa cum laude with her bachelor of arts degree in Human Development, all with the help of Learning Ally’s audio textbook library. With barely a moment to breathe, she was accepted in the graduate program in rehabilitation counseling at San Diego State University.
Susan had decided she wanted to do more than become a regular credentialed teacher in the classroom, and realized that technology was her biggest hurdle. When she recounts her journey from fear back into feeling like her “old self,” she talks about Learning Ally’s role, and the ease at which she was able to get her textbooks. “I thought to myself, now I can go to school! I can read my books! I can read and learn how to do the internet!” Susan’s experience with assistive technology not only brought her comfort, but a new way to define herself; she decided to have her specialization in Assistive Technology.
Now in her first semester in graduate school, Susan has a big project in her assistive technology course that has led her back to Learning Ally for more than her textbooks. Her project involves mentoring a young man in middle school, who has a learning disability. Susan contacted Learning Ally’s Lea Herman for some advice, and then took it upon herself to make a presentation at her mentee’s school.
“I think my journey lends me a little bit of credibility. I’ve been there, I’ve learned it, I utilize it – I can’t imagine my life without assistive technology. And I also look back and see that part of my motivation for choosing a middle-school student is, I think if we can catch them there and give them the things they need there, they’ll have a better high school experience, and a better chance out in the world.”
Susan told the teachers about Learning Ally’s large audio textbook collection, and included demonstrations of playback devices, while providing literature about how Learning Ally helps individuals with learning disabilities access success, as it helped her when she lost her vision. The Learning Ally fund development staff in Southern California is now busy finding an “angel” to fund Susan's struggling reader with some assistive technology of his own.
When asked what she is most proud of, Susan tells us that raising all the children is her biggest accomplishment. And being married for 35 years! “I’m also proud—or grateful—for all the things I’ve received, and I’ve taken and run with them. I’ve done the work required to get through college and get through it really well. I work really hard, I have a good work ethic. That’s a blessing in itself. I’m always in the attitude of ‘what a gift’ and being present; able to experience what I’m doing right now.
“I’m grateful for my blindness—it was the catalyst to receive my education and find agencies like yours. Not being able to read closed so many doors to me, and Learning Ally opened up the world of books! It was like my window into the world. Knowledge gives us power!” Susan’s gratitude doesn’t stop there. “Learning Ally’s volunteers are the most amazing people in the world. All those people who read some of those very boring books – I don’t know how they hang in there, but it’s awesome. And because of them, I still got straight A’s!”
Susan’s gift of seeing everything in her life as a blessing is truly inspirational. “Don’t settle. And ask questions when in doubt. Seek it out. We can all have a higher quality of life.”