On a trip home to visit parents recently, 48-year-old Todd Williams read this column in the Middlesboro (Ky.) Daily News. He soon emailed to express appreciation and mentioned having a disability himself. In reply, I asked if he would like to be featured and discuss his experiences having retinitis pigmentosa and spina bifida. In a telephone interview days later, he remarked, “While reading your column (at my parents’ house) I was amazed because this was the first time I’d read an article about a disabled person that had given the disabled person so much attention.”
Spina bifida is a permanent birth defect usually causing hydrocephalus and paralysis. Due to Williams having spina bifida, surgeons at his birth told his parents he would have hydrocephalus, “mental retardation,” and would be unable to walk. The surgeons eventually were proven wrong on every count. He began walking at age 3. However, due to some bladder paralysis, he had difficulty with urine control and so right before he entered kindergarten, doctors performed a urostomy.
“For one, kids in school couldn’t understand spina bifida,” he said. “I looked so healthy and yet always walked with a limp in my left leg because of it. I constantly was being called names because of the limp. I couldn’t participate in sports and if you can’t do that in high school you can’t be popular. Also, my father had been a great high school athlete and I wanted to be good as he was.”
Williams majored in history in college. One day at age 22, while he was student teaching, his world was turned upside down. He said, “I was giving a lecture and suddenly whole rows of students began disappearing (from my vision). I thought I was losing my mind.” An eye doctor diagnosed retinitis pigmentosa, which many people call “tunnel vision.” Now, besides having spina bifida, Williams is legally blind and has a visual field of less than 5 degrees in each eye.
Today, through a state agency helping blind people, he makes a living owning a vending machine business servicing two Tennessee colleges. Of his disabilities, he said his spina bifida-related urostomy presented the most challenges.
He said he has maintained his positive attitude by realizing “that God is greater than any problem I face, and regardless of the problem in life, God can get me through it.”