According to the National Institutes of Health, JRA is a long-term (chronic) disease with early onset that results in joint pain and swelling. Sharon Stolberg acquired JRA at age 19 months. As a child, she went from walking in braces to using a cane and then crutches to using a wheelchair by age seven. At age 11, her disease flared-up to the point she couldn’t attend school for a year. She nearly died. Within the next few years, she had three major operations, and would continue using a wheelchair until age 18.
“Having to use a wheelchair definitely isolated me,” said Stolberg of her youth. “I was different and couldn’t be as independent as most other people my age. I wasn’t dating and couldn’t do sleepovers because my friends’ homes weren’t accessible. That restricted me to doing things mostly with my friends with disabilities.”
At 19, she made a decision to leave her wheelchair. She went on to earn an associate’s degree in Florida, get married, and finish bachelor’s and master’s degrees in special education, with the latter at Lee University in 2011. Today, she teaches a special education class of nine children at an elementary school in Tennessee.
It’s not that her juvenile rheumatoid arthritis has improved to the point of allowing her to accomplish her dreams, but rather she has fought through the pain. She enjoys rock climbing, biking, hand cycling, kayaking, and stand-up paddle boarding.
She said, “Because of JRA, I’m only 4’6″. I have severe limitations in the range of motion in my arms, which impairs me most, and I also have limitations in every joint in my body. The pain is there all the time and to be active I have to mentally block out the pain. The only good joints I have are the artificial ones, my two hips.”
Sharon Stolberg is a board member of Sports & Recreation of Chattanooga, a chapter of Disabled Sports USA, which is a national organization providing adaptive sports opportunities for people with disabilities. She wants to become a motivational speaker.