Claudia Perry has never faced a challenge she couldn’t overcome. Blinded at age 24 by Devic’s Syndrome, a rare disease of the central nervous system that affects the optic nerves and spinal cord, the former United States Air Force staff sergeant has celebrated many accomplishments. She has raised her daughter, Alicia, now 16; has a successful career with the Blinded Veterans Association; earned a bachelor’s degree in management from University of Phoenix; and is currently enrolled in a University of Phoenix doctoral program in industrial/organizational psychology.
Perry’s journey into blindness started on a sunny day in 1999 when she worked a 12-hour shift at an Air Force air show in Missouri. She had forgotten to wear sunglasses. The next morning she woke up with a gray spot affecting her vision in the middle of her left eye. She thought that perhaps the sun had burned her cornea. By week’s end, the vision in her left eye was completely gray. Her eyesight came back, but within six months, she experienced the same problem in her right eye. At that point, Perry was medically discharged from the Air Force after five and a half years of active duty. “I was devastated, because I really loved my job as a medical technician,” she says.
At the time, Perry’s husband, also in the Air Force, was on active duty overseas. With the help of a cousin, Perry gathered their belongings and moved from Missouri to Maryland to be near family. By the time Perry reached Maryland, her legs were numb and soon, she couldn’t walk. After a long stint in the hospital and physical therapy, she was able to regain her strength and walk again, but was declared legally blind. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, but was later diagnosed with Devic’s Syndrome.
Facing a lifetime of disability, Perry decided to keep a positive attitude. “I wasn’t going to let this get me down,” she says. She went to the Veteran’s Administration Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and met Lillie Kennedy, a visual impairment services team coordinator. “She was my gateway into the world of blindness,” Perry says.
Kennedy referred Perry to the Eastern Blind Rehabilitation Center in West Haven, Connecticut, where she spent two months learning how to use a cane and live independently. Her goals revolved around Alicia, who was about to start kindergarten. “I told the representative, ‘I need to walk her to school and I would like to read to her.’” Perry accomplished those goals and more. Using speech software that reads books aloud, Perry was able to read with her daughter every night. By the end of the school year, Alicia won an award for being the top reader in kindergarten.
After more medical setbacks and subsequent treatment, Perry got a sales job at a Bath and Body Works store at a nearby mall. Despite her blindness, she says, “I became their top seller.” Bolstered by her success, Perry got a job at the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind as a database manager, where she worked for two years.
With her illness under control, Perry enrolled at University of Phoenix and started taking business and information systems classes. She took five classes before she realized she didn’t like technology. “It wasn’t for me,” she says. An enrollment representative steered Perry toward a management degree. In June 2009, with a 3.8 grade point average, Perry received her degree. “I felt so fantastic,” she says. “My daughter walked me across the stage. Everybody clapped for me and I was so proud.”
After graduating, Perry wanted to continue her education. She was interested in psychology and management, so she enrolled in the industrial/organizational psychology doctoral program. Seven classes into the program, the last of which was statistics, she dropped out. “It’s really hard to do math as a blind person because it’s so visual,” she says.
But quitting is not in Perry’s nature. After some serious self-examination, she decided to re-enroll in the program and started again in March 2013. “It’s a 98-credit (master’s and doctorate) program and I have 21 credits—halfway to the master’s degree,” she says.
In addition to tackling her aggressive class schedule, Perry holds a full-time position with the Blinded Veterans Association as a national field-service training coordinator. She works with field-service representatives and volunteers assisting blinded veterans nationwide in their adjudication of VA claims, as well as helping them adjust to blindness.
When she’s not busy working or studying, Perry enjoys skiing and rowing. “I row with two groups—Athletes Without Limits and the Med Star National Rehabilitation Hospital Paralympic Sports Program.” She also works on a strength and conditioning program, and is learning how to surf.
“I tell people that being blind isn’t going to stop you, it just slows you down. That’s all it is,” she says. “You have to think about how to do things differently.”