Shelia Wright was elected to the National Federation of the Blind Board of Directors in July of 2022. Her service in the National Federation of the Blind began in South Carolina, was evidenced in Nebraska, and for more than three decades the state of Missouri has been the beneficiary of her initiative, hard work, and follow-through.
When Shelia was born, her vision problem was known almost immediately, but the extent to which she could not see was often downplayed and the word blindness was never used. She needed glasses by the time she started school, but not much was provided in the way of accommodation except letting her sit closer to the front of the class. By the time she got to the end of elementary school, she was sitting about four feet from the blackboard near the teacher's desk.
Shelia went to elementary school in Hartsville, South Carolina, and she got there by walking or riding her bicycle. When in junior high the school was too far away, she got herself to the elementary school in the same way and then caught a bus.
By her senior year in high school, it was determined she needed large print books; she often ran into the problem of getting ones that were out-of-date. To her great frustration, she could study all she should but still end up writing down the wrong answers because her books were not the newest edition being used by her teacher and classmates. Soon she got to the place where she started leaving books in the locker and relying as much as she could on what she heard in class. Because she brought no alternative techniques to the game, her grades in junior high and high school were less than stellar.
Shelia remembers first being diagnosed as "blind" when she was sixteen. Before she was always dismissed after examinations, and her doctors met with her parents who were told that there was nothing they could do for her, and they were referred back to the optometrist, who they said was doing an excellent job fitting her with glasses. Shelia believes that the inaccurate diagnosis and hesitancy by the ophthalmologist to talk with patient and family did not provide them with the information needed to seek out and support appropriate specialized educational services. This is the reason Shelia has been so adamant about young blind children getting diagnosed quickly and ensuring that students begin learning Braille at an early age. "It certainly should have been before age sixteen that I heard I had a progressive eye condition that was so significant that I was already legally blind. The doctor told me I should learn Braille because it would be easier to learn at sixteen than at thirty when there would be no other options."
When Shelia started to plug in to vocational rehabilitation services, she immediately had to undergo psychological testing, a custom of the agency at that time. The prediction of the psychologist and her rehabilitation counselor was that she would not make it beyond one semester in college. "The only reason you want to go to college is to get your M R S degree," she was dismissively told.
"None of my cousins went to college, but when I was told I could not, that was very motivating for me. Being told I can’t often is the prescription for I can, and I will."
Her motivation, hard work, and innate ability meant that Shelia graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in psychology. She chose this path to reduce the number of classes in mathematics and science. She then entered a master's program in education, specializing in vocational rehabilitation counseling, and after successfully securing that degree, she has managed to work in three states.
Shelia worked for several months at the Iowa Commission for the Blind as a rehabilitation associate. This was an opportunity for her to see vocational rehabilitation for the blind at its best, and this job gave her invaluable experience. When she returned to South Carolina, she marketed her skills to a nursing home that had several blind residents. She was hired to work with blind and visually impaired residents on how to travel safely around the facility. She also assisted them in participating in social and recreational activities. Additionally, she taught staff to help blind residents be more independent. She found this job exciting for about six months and worked until a fulltime job in the field of vocational rehabilitation became a reality.
In the state of South Carolina, the general rehabilitation agency discriminated against blind people, saying that if a blind person wanted a job in the field, they should go to the agency for the blind because the general agency needed its counselors to travel. The reality was that rehabilitation counselors at the Commission for the Blind traveled more than their counterparts in the general agency.
When Shelia took a job at the South Carolina Commission for the Blind, she did so with some reluctance. She really wanted to work in some other field and then come back to rehabilitation for a career, but that is not the way things worked out. "I was really afraid that I would end up being pigeonholed into a job that I didn't want, and I wanted rehab to be something that I actively chose to do with my heart and my soul." She worked at the Commission for about three years, but periodically she would be solicited by Dr. James Nyman, the director of the Nebraska agency. At first she was cavalier about the interviews, at one point telling him that the only job she would be interested in was the one he held. After more calls and some negotiation, she eventually took a job as the director of the orientation and adjustment center. Taking that job was a gutsy thing for her to attempt given that she had never been to an orientation center, had never had any cane travel, and what Braille she knew came from her own learning. She relied on friends when she needed help and advice in any of these areas, and though it certainly was not the easiest or most traditional way to begin managing a program, she embraced and overcame the challenge. Those friends also helped her solidify her understanding and internalization of the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind, a view she was familiar with but was never sure she thoroughly understood or had worked at integrating into her being.
After working in this position for three years she decided it was time to move along. Though Shelia would return to the agency for some temporary work to help them in solving a staffing problem, eventually she came to Missouri. The job search she conducted saw her sending out thirty to forty job applications a week for about six months, and strangely, on the day when she received a job offer from Missouri, there were two of them: one was with the state agency and the other with a private agency in St. Louis called ABLE. She took the counseling job with the state agency and moved to Kansas City. She was challenged because at that time there were no blind counselors working for the agency. "If you were blind, you worked as a rehabilitation teacher who is paired with a sighted assistant. As a counselor they did not even give me as much as a Braille writer." Her work for the agency started in July of 1984 and continued until August of 1988. She then went to work for Blind FOCUS, a private agency, where she worked until 1995. She is particularly proud of the program she helped to build that was for students transitioning from high school to college to work.
Believing that she had spent too much of her life working in the field of blindness and wanting to move into event planning, Shelia left Blind FOCUS in 1995. Though she did not pursue the career she thought she would, she has held a number of jobs that have resulted in new programs and good programming for the blind. She helped in shaping the Technology Access Program for Internet, an innovative program in Missouri that provides screen-reading software and other assistive technology to allow blind people to gain access to the resources found on the internet. She has worked as a consumer support provider (CSP) for that program since its inception and continues to do so, providing direct teaching and product evaluation. She contracted with Missouri Rehabilitation Services for the Blind to conduct the Code Master Project which focused on blind adults needing intensive training in Braille, and she has contracted to do program evaluations in other states.
Nationally one of the efforts that Shelia is most proud of is participating in the creation of the National Association of Blind Rehabilitation Professionals. "Before this group, many of us felt like Lone Rangers out in our agencies, and I saw this group as being really important to give us inspiration as we tried through our daily work to bring about the hopes and dreams that are embodied in the Federation."
Of course, her work with the National Federation of the Blind has kept her extremely busy. She has been an active member in all the states in which she has lived, joining the Missouri Board in 1993, becoming second vice president in 2001, moving to first vice president in 2003, and assuming her current job as affiliate president in 2017. Since Gary Wunder was the state president for much of the time before she assumed that title, he can tell you that one of the things that elevates people to office and keeps them there is the willingness to follow through on commitments. He says, "Never did Shelia leave us hanging out on a limb. If she promised to make a call, it was made, write a letter and it was written, chair a committee and it met, organize a legislative event and it was organized, and, wow, could she keep a list. She has always been an active supporter of anything we put our names on, but her support has not always been without criticism. When I sent out an annual list of affiliate committees and asked my ranking officer Shelia what she thought of the appointments I had made, she said, 'I often wonder whether you are drunk when you make these lists.' You can bet I worked harder at seeking her advice when drawing up future lists."
Like the rest of us, Shelia has a life beyond work and Federation activities. She married Harvey Fisher in 1985, he being a rehabilitation teacher for the state agency. Unfortunately, Harvey died as a result of cancer in 1991. Shelia found an able and loving helpmate, and she married Jeff Wright in 1996. Jeff shares her love of the Federation and in addition to helping her do many behind the scenes tasks, he has also served as a chapter officer for many years. Together they work hard in their church and strive to live the values in which they deeply believe.
Shelia’s hobbies include tandem biking, swimming, playing the guitar, and reading. She also enjoys sports, and those who know her are well aware they should not call when either the Kansas City Chiefs or the South Carolina Gamecocks are playing.
Shelia says that she believes one of the greatest assets she brings to the Federation is developing projects and programs and then overseeing many of them until they are well-established. "I like being a change agent and the new endeavors we create. I am proud of the fact that we established a program for young students called Mission Believe, another program called Mission BEAM, and an active group that is now known as the Cane Drivers." I am not always the person who does most of the work, but one of my strengths is in building teams and in helping them get things done."
"I have enjoyed watching things change such as seeing kids who come to the convention with canes learning to use them and getting around by themselves. I was glad that Nebraska was a part of this and that at the time I was a part of the Nebraska agency and the affiliate. When I look back on advancements we have made, I am proud of all of them; whether they bear my handprint is less important than the fact that I have actively participated in the Federation and therefore have something to do with everything that gives blind people an opportunity to live a better life."