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As the articles on this page attest, blind teachers come in all different flavors. Much of what helps make them unique occurs outside the classroom as well as inside. The following article originally appeared in
The Peterborough Examiner
in 2008 and explains how Sharon Ballantyne has been able to overcome her loss of vision and enjoy an exceptionally productive life.

Elizabeth Bower

When she woke up blind, Sharon Ballantyne treated the morning like any other. The then 33-year-old got dressed, kissed her young children and husband goodbye and headed to work at Adam Scott Collegiate where she was a teacher.

This loss of sight wasn't a total surprise. After a lifetime of visual impairment, she had been gradually losing her limited vision for years and doctors had told her, a few months prior, that the situation was "grave."

She says she never felt sorry for herself and wanted to keep accomplishing her dreams.

To do that, though, she had to overcome naysayers. Ballantyne went on to keep teaching, to this day, through the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board.

She also overcame critics by becoming the first blind minister in the United Church of Canada. Now, at age 46, Ballantyne is still an over-achieving mother-of-two. She's a minister at Fairview United Church, a full-time James Strath Public School Grade 3 teacher and a volunteer at Hospice Peterborough.

She's also completing her PhD in theological studies at Queen's University.

Through all the obstacles, she says, she always thinks back to a teenager with muscular dystrophy who inspired her to never give up. Jamie, a 15-year-old Adam Scott student, drove around "with gusto" in an electric wheelchair and endured long painful surgical procedures to treat the disease.

But he was always a well-tempered student who enjoyed school in the Learning and Life Skills class, Ballantyne recalls.

When Jamie reached age 17, his health deteriorated: he weighed 45 pounds and had to be tube fed in the classroom.

"What inspired me so much was that he had this attitude that he'd never give up," Ballantyne says.

Jamie eventually died in hospital.

She says even throughout his last days, he was brave and delightful. "So I don't see? So what?" she says. "He taught me, as so many have throughout my life, that life is full. And you don't just sit around worrying about what you don't have. You've just got to get on with it."

Ballantyne has the appearance of a kindly minister - soft features, demure stance and a chain, bearing a cross, around her neck.

The centre of her left eye is milky white with hints of yellow, the result of what doctors believe was an accumulation of old blood and scarring. "My kindergarten kids call it my gold eye," she says with a good-natured laugh.

Ballantyne sat down in her Westridge Boulevard home, with guide dog Titan lying at her feet, to discuss how she overcame all the challenges in her life and, learning from Jamie, "just got on with it."

Ballantyne was born in 1961 in Belleville to her mother Marie, a switchboard operator and secretary for CN Railways, and her father Bill, who had various jobs in sales. She has one younger sister Judy, a teacher in Toronto.

Ballantyne was born three months premature, weighing two pounds eight ounces. She was so small, her nickname was Peanut.

She lived in an incubator for her first 3 1/2 months. Oxygen was pumped into the incubator to help her tiny, underdeveloped lungs. That oxygen, however, contributed to retinopathy of prematurity - an eye disease that can affect all premature babies.

Nobody knew she had visual impairment when her parents finally brought her home. At age 15 months, however, her mother noticed Ballantyne's eyes wouldn't follow her fingers if waved in front of her face.

It turned out Ballantyne had five per cent vision in her left eye and only light perception in her right eye. Her parents made a conscious decision to not coddle her. "Dad said, 'Sharon can do anything,'" she recalls.

She recalls wearing thick Coke-bottle glasses as a child but found they didn't help. Without glasses, she could see "with absolute clarity" - she just had to sit with her nose to the TV screen or with a book pressed to her face.

She recalls with a laugh that if she was reading a homework assignment, she had to press the paper so close to her face that she'd have pencil smudging on her nose.

In the distance, she could only see faded images. It was kind of like a "pea-soup fog," she explains.

Normal vision, or 20-20 vision, means you can see an object clearly at 20 feet away. Her vision ranged from 20-400 to 20-700, meaning an object that was 20 feet away appeared to be between 400 to 700 feet away.

Ballantyne says she had a normal childhood, playing sports such as soccer and baseball (although her limited vision meant she was "crummy") and joining extra-curricular groups such as Brownies.

She excelled in studies at Belleville's Bayview Public School. She took notes based on what the teacher said because she couldn't see the blackboard. She'd bring her friends' notes home from school to make sure she hadn't missed anything.

Life at Moira Secondary School was also challenging, but she ensured she always sat at the front of the class, to avoid distraction, and devoted a tremendous amount of time to homework.

"My world was centred around getting good grades," Ballantyne says. "I couldn't just do OK, I was driven to do really well.... I now know it was because I was different enough visually that getting good grades helped me be like everyone else."

Faith was never a huge part of her family life, but Ballantyne grew closer to God throughout high school. She says her friends were active in church, which rubbed off on her.

By Grade 13, Ballantyne became a Christian camp leader at IAWAH (In All Ways Acknowledge Him) Camp, near Kingston.

Working with children was a lifelong passion, so she also became director of the Saturday morning children's program at a YMCA.

In 1980, Ballantyne entered a general BA program at Queen's University in Kingston. She knew she wanted to be a teacher, so she also volunteered at nearby schools and nurseries, working with children with developmental disabilities.

At Queen's, Ballantyne enjoyed her elective courses in religion so much that, by the end of her first year, she switched her major from psychology to religious studies.

She also joined Queen's Christian Fellowship, a youth group for Christian students, where she met her future husband Cliff.

The pair attended the same Anglican church throughout university and both taught Sunday school.

After a couple years of dating, Cliff entered a radio contest that challenged listeners to write a letter about why they were in love. The prize: a diamond ring. "That's the ring on my finger," Ballantyne says smiling, wiggling her wedding finger in the air.

After getting married and graduating with a BA, her minister encouraged her to pursue ministry. But Ballantyne had always had her heart set on teaching. So she completed an extra year of studies at the Queen's Faculty of Education and, in 1984, started working in speech assessment for the Frontenac-Lennox and Addington County Roman Catholic School Board.

In the summer of 1985, the newlyweds moved to Tokyo, Japan to teach English as a Second Language. After a year there, they returned home to Kingston and Ballantyne was pregnant.

Little did Ballantyne know that her first-born, Emily, would follow in her footsteps. Ballantyne had gone in for a routine pregnancy checkup and discovered she had toxemia - a disease that can be deadly for both mother and child. Doctors removed Emily by C-section the following day.

Much like her mother, Emily was premature weighing three pounds, 10 ounces and was placed in an incubator. Much like her mother, Emily also developed retinopathy of prematurity.

Ballantyne had known the oxygen in the incubator could damage her newborn's eyesight. But Emily needed an incubator to survive, so there was no choice, she recalls.

Emily was brought home weighing four pounds six ounces. Even preemie clothes didn't fit. Ballantyne dressed her in Cabbage Patch Kids clothes.

"It wasn't a big deal that she got retinopathy," Ballantyne says. "I saw other babies (in the hospital's pediatric ICU) who had cerebral palsy, and one that was so small you couldn't tell if he had eyeballs. So my baby had visual impairment. So I thought, 'Who cares?' I got to take my baby home and she was breathing on her own. I thought, 'You go girl.'"

Shortly afterward, in 1987, the young family moved to Peterborough as Cliff got a job teaching at Trafalgar School, a now-defunct school on Cameron Street for children with special needs.

As for Emily, Ballantyne had considered surgery but was reluctant because the baby seemed so otherwise healthy - she ate, moved freely and was hitting her developmental milestones. "So why would I subject her to surgery?" she says. "We just prayed a lot."

In what Ballantyne calls a miracle, Emily's vision was 20-20 by the time she attended elementary school. Doctors told her they don't understand what happened.

"I think it was all that praying," Ballantyne says smiling.

Her second daughter, Sarah, was born without complications in May, 1989. A few months after giving birth, Ballantyne started a new job as a special education teacher at Adam Scott but it wasn't long before her vision waned.

A cataract had formed over her left eye.

It seemed like another miracle when doctors removed the cataract in 1992 and she could suddenly see better than ever.

Driving home after surgery, she could see, for the first time in her life, leaves on the trees. "I thought, 'Oh my goodness, this is absolutely amazing,'" she says. "Then everything started going backwards."

First, that longer range vision deteriorated. Within a week, she couldn't see clearly if she held a book up to her nose.

Over the next two years, she says she always believed her vision would improve. But in the meantime, she problem-solved how she could perform everyday tasks with increasingly limited sight. She walked with a white cane, for example, learned braille and got her first guide dog - a boxer named Rhea, which she brought to school while teaching.

Her eyesight didn't improve, though, and she also started getting violent headaches.

By 1994, doctors said her vision was "grave." So she prepared herself for what seemed like the inevitable until that morning, in January, 1995, when she woke up to total darkness.

"I just thought, 'Well, now I don't have to worry about it happening anymore because it's already gone," she says.

Touch became her eyes. She reached out to feel the sofa before sitting down. She used her hands to stir cookie batter, instead of a spoon, so she could feel if it was thoroughly mixed. She problem-solved in her classes, such as by making students identify themselves before asking a question so she'd know who was speaking.

(While she stopped teaching at Adam Scott a few months after losing her sight, she went on to teach children with learning disabilities at Kawartha Heights, then became a literacy teacher at North Cavan and, since 2002, has taught regular classes at James Strath.)

There's no shortage of challenges as a teacher who's blind. What if children need help reading a word in a book? Then they'd use their finger to draw the letters on the back of her hand, she explains.

If they drew a Z-O-O, for example, she'd help them sound out the word.

While teaching, her heart still ached to become a minister. It sunk in that life is short when her own minister, at Westdale United Church, died unexpectedly after a surgery. So in 1997, she started her master of divinity degree at the Queen's University Theological College and graduated in 2005.

Skeptics thought a blind minister couldn't properly perform her duties, she says.

People asked how she'd drive to visit ailing congregation members. How could she baptize a baby without "putting water up their nose?" people asked. Friends encouraged her not to give up and she kicked her problem-solving into high gear.

Congregation members could drive her to see others, friends told her. If it was an emergency, she'd take a taxi.

And she could get parents to hold babies during baptisms and have them guide her hand to their foreheads.

"Friends always told me, God will find a way," she says. "And they were right."

Ballantyne was ordained in May, 2006 and settled at Fairview - a small church built in the 1870s, on the Centre Line of Smith, that seats about 100 people. There are about 40 active members in the ministry, which Ballantyne shares with Rev. Bill Peacock, and she says they're all like one big family.

Over the years, she says she hasn't dwelled on the obstacles.

Instead, her everyday focus is not letting what seems like an impossibility become an obstacle. "I believe God is guiding us on a path but I don't believe it's pre-written," she says. "You have to find the things you can do and not focus on the things you can't."

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