Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Marla Runyan: Overcoming Obstacles

Marla Runyan has spent most of her life overcoming obstacles. Perhaps her biggest one appeared suddenly on the first day of school when she was in the fourth grade, she told those gathered for the100th anniversary of Vision Loss Resources, a Twin Cities based non-profit that offers assistance to visually impaired individuals.

"The teacher started writing on the board," she said.  "I couldn't make out what she was writing. I thought: 'What's wrong with her chalk?' I didn't know what was wrong.  I started crying.  The teacher took me outside.  I told her: 'I can't see the board.'"

That started a two year journey, Runyan said, in an attempt to find out why she suddenly went from a child with perfect vision to someone who was now legally blind.  "I grew up in Southern California," noted Runyan.  Life until then had been "normal," some would say privileged.  The family took trips to Lake Mead in the summer to water ski. She played soccer, did gymnastics, they had a swimming pool at their house.  Life was good.

But at nine years old, her vision deteriorated from 20/20 to 2200.  The ophthalmologist they went to said she needed glasses.  No change.  They went to a doctor who did a series of tests that revealed she was "losing my central vision."  The doctor told her parents: "I think your daughter is making this up."
Marla Runyan talking at the Vision Loss Resources 100th Anniversary luncheon

They went to another doctor, a retina specialist, who did more tests.  When he was done he asked Marla to leave the room so he could talk to her parents alone.  When her parents came out of the room after talking with the doctor, "I could feel that something very serious had been discussed," Marla recalls.  Her parents did not tell her exactly what the doctor had said.  Later she would learn that this doctor told her parents that Marla had "butterfly dystrophy," and that she would be completely blind in three months.

Her parents wanted a second opinion.  Life went on as normal for the next two weeks. "I was going to soccer practice, to school," Marla said, "faking it," not letting on to her schoolmates that something was wrong. She went through further testing.  When the results came in, the doctor told her parents that Marla had Stargardt disease, a juvenile form of macular degeneration.

He told her parents that she was legally blind and that Marla would probably be no better than a C student.  When her parents told her what the doctor had said, they got a response that they probably didn't expect.  "I remember jumping off the kitchen counter and running to my bedroom," Runyan said, but it wasn't despair or hopelessness she was feeling.  "I was so mad," she said.  "I was going to spend every day proving (the doctor) was wrong."

She didn't let the anger control her.  She used the anger as motivation.  "In high school and college I had a lot of anger," she said.  "I didn't want to fail in school.  I was a good faker."  She hid her condition, tried to fit in, cope as best she could.  At first, Marla said, "My parents didn't know what to expect from me.  I felt the expectations fall.  People would say: 'Do the best you can,' and I thought: 'What if my best is pretty damn good!' I was probably already pretty competitive.  I said: 'I can do this.  I just had to do it differently.

"My school district didn't know what to do for me."  Her mother accepted Marla's approach.  She began to "look and search for any resource.  She was relentless advocate," said Runyan.  "She was modelling for me. 'You can do this!' She was going to find a way."  They would find a way together.

From her experience, Runyan says, she recommends the "top three things" people facing this sort of obstacle should do.  First is a positive attitude.  You are going to be able to figure this out.  You will succeed, and that power of positive thinking approach becomes a "self fulfilling prophecy,"  says Runyan.

Second is finding the right "tools" to allow you to succeed.  Foremost among those tools for Runyan have been a group of Apple products, her iPhone and her Mac computer.  The iPhone because of its Siri voice recognition software and her Mac with its VoiceOver screen reader became like a "personal assistant," she said.  "I would not have my Masters degree without my Mac."

"I stopped reading for a long time," Runyan said, until the software caught up.  Something as seemingly simple  as grocery shopping used to be akin to running a race.  "Going to the store is a workout," Runyan said.  Things that sighted people can do easily became mental gymnastics for her. She had to memorize where things were and hope that the store did not change those locations.  Then came grocery delivery services.

Through them, she didn't have to navigate the store, just pick out the items she needed, order them, and "for a $7 fee they'll deliver it to you," Marla said, "How cool is that!"

The final thing is developing your own "community," Runyan said.  "You need the support of your community.  It's not enough to say to somebody: 'You can do it.' You have to show them.  People in the 'community' have to provide the support.  'You're going to do this, and I'm going to show you how.'"

"That's what I believe has kept (Vision Resources) in business for 100 years...I've had 35 years to adapt.  You have to be able to adapt.  As soon as you've changed your environment, you have to start all over again...I was very fortunate.  I had an incredible mom who was my advocate."

Her parents, her "community," and her own determination helped Runyan overcome obstacles that would have defeated others.  She used the anger that she felt when others told her she couldn't do something to drive her to prove them wrong.  She developed coping skills to "fit in" to a society that often sees individuals with seemingly debilitating conditions as "handicapped."

She didn't allow her "handicap" to define who she was.  She set her own goals and discovered ways to achieve them.  She was a Paralympic champion, then one of the top "able bodied" Olympians in the world.  Now she is taking those lessons and using them to help others.  She is teaching at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts, where Helen Keller was taught.  Runyan is attempting to help them succeed, to overcome life's obstacles.

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