Sunday, November 28, 2010

Missouri woman with disabled hands defies teacher's predictions, finds career in graphic design

From DigitalBurg in Mo.:

WARRENSBURG, Mo.-- “You can’t be in here because I don’t know how to teach you.”

Every person has a defining moment, a turning point that changes his or her life forever. For Judy King (pictured), who was born without knuckles, this moment came when she heard those words from her high school typing instructor.

“Judy was born with severe birth defects,” said Cathy Barr, director of the Missouri Center for Career Education at the University of Central Missouri.

Things that people take for granted are difficult for King, who is also hearing-impaired. She explains that even picking up a paper clip is tricky.

“She has worked through a number of prejudices with people underestimating what her capabilities are,” Barr said.

Upon entering King’s roomy, softly-lit office, you can see papers and folders stacked precariously on her desk, and yellow Post-It notes stuck on her computer screen and file cabinet. Intelligently messy, yet organized. She unclips some photos from the file cabinet and proudly shows off various snapshots of her nieces and nephews.

“They are so adorable,” she beams. “But then again, I’m biased.”

King, a Sedalia resident, was in-between jobs when she started working for the University in 1997. She has since then loved every minute of it.

Initially work-ing in the Union, she served several positions, including man-aging a copy center for the students, doing the graphics for the facilities office, and coordinating weddings for the Alumni Chapel on campus. After seven years, she moved on to become part of the Missouri Center for Career Education (MCCE) staff in the Gaines Building on campus.

“She’s very good at working with a wide variety of clients,” said Nathan Wittmaier, coordinator of publications at MCCE. “She makes sure that the clients’ needs are met, whatever that takes. And if it’s something that she can do on her own, then she does it and gets it done… no fuss, no muss.”
King is the project specialist for products and programs at MCCE.

“Her teacher didn’t see how a person with her hands could type,” Barr said. “Ironically, Judy has been in the printing and graphics trade for many years, and spends all day at a keyboard.” Barr pauses and swivels in her office chair. “She’s got remarkable tenacity, and she’s an idea person, too. She’s constantly coming up with things that I have to tell her ‘no,’” Barr laughs as she uses the scolding-a-child tone.

King’s first job was as a typesetter for the Sedalia Democrat newspaper. “I went into graphics by fluke,” laughs King. “I started laying out ads, and I had a pretty good eye for layout – what looked good, what didn’t look good… and it blossomed from there.”

After working at MCCE for a while, her director at the time told her in one of her evaluation sessions that she should consider taking classes. So King put some thought into it and told herself, “Well just take one class and see how it goes.”

She was instantly hooked. One class led to another, and another. Pretty soon, King found herself almost having enough hours for a degree. Because of the classes, King feels she has upgraded her skills and has become an all-around better employee.

“It started out as a time-filler and to appease the director,” King said, “but it turned out to my benefit.”

In 2009, King earned her bachelor’s degree in graphic arts technology management and she is working on her master’s degree in education technology.

“You’re never too old to go back to school,” she said. “I graduated with my bachelor’s at the age of 60, and I’ll be 62 when I graduate with my master’s.”

King is also, for the first time, teaching an online class on assistive technology for special needs. She is happy with her nine students enrolled in the class.

“It’s a small enough class that I can manage it, plus take my classes and work at the same time,” she said.

Shawn Knoblock, a graduate student in educational technology, said he didn’t know much about disabilities when he started King’s course.

“This is the first class I’ve taken on it, learning about the different aspects, different software, and different technologies that go with being disabled. It’s interesting.”

Asked about any difficulties she’s had to overcome to accomplish this much, King hesitantly lets her barrier down to share a piece of her past — the painful moment that defines who she is today.

“I graduated from a little old country high school in Hughsville, Mo.,” King said. “I think there was a total of 14 in my senior class. My first eight grades, I was in a one-room school house.”

King looks deep in thought. “I had an experience in my high school class because of the way my hands are.” King extends her hands and gazes at them, while continuing to talk. “They are not fully developed, like, I can’t make a fist,” she balls up her hand, “because I don’t have these knuckles here so I can’t —” She stops abruptly; her eyes begin to water as her voice becomes shaky with emotion. “So my teacher at that time said, ‘You can’t be in here, because I don’t know how to teach you.’” Her voice mirrors the pain in her eyes.

She clears her throat. “I had not said anything to my parents for several days, but went ahead and went to class, even though I just sat there.” She heaves a sigh as her voice struggles to continue.

“So at the supper table one evening, my dad was asking how my classes were going, so I finally told him what had happened in the class. And he said, ‘Well, you keep going to class and don’t worry about it.’

“Well, unbeknownst to me, before he went to work the next day, he went in and spoke with the superintendent and the teacher. He told them, ‘My daughter wants to take typing. You’re the teacher. Now teach her.’”

King shifts in her chair as she recalls what her father said. “‘You tell her what she needs, and she’ll take care of the rest.’”

She stops speaking for a bit. “I wound up getting the typing award,” she says, as she smiles through sad eyes. “It just goes to show that no matter what kind of handicap you may have, if you let that determination mode kick in, you can do anything.”

Unable to hold back any longer, she breaks down. Tears freely roll down her flushed cheeks like raindrops on a window pane. She sits there unmoving while she cries in silence with her hands folded in her lap, looking straight ahead.

Attempting to compose herself but failing, King continues emphatically, “Which is why with education, I don’t ever want to hear a teacher say, ‘I don’t know how to teach you.’ I don’t ever want to hear that a child had to go through that.”

King sniffs and apologizes. She starts laughing through her tears at her unexpected breakdown. “I don’t even have any Kleenex back here,” she quips.

From her poignant experience, King knew what she had in mind when she began her master’s — to educate teachers so that when a special-needs student comes in, they know how to accommodate that student.

“Our educators need to be educated themselves,” King said with newfound power to her voice. “No student should ever have to be intimidated or inhibited.”