No barriers are too large to overcome with faith, belief and determination. That was the message delivered by representatives of the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind to those gathered on Tuesday for the 18th annual Helen Keller Lecture at Troy University.
The lecture series, held each spring, is designed to promote awareness of people who excel in their chosen fields despite physical and/or mental limitations.
"Helen Keller believed that anything was possible through hard work," said Dr. John Mascia, AIDB President. "Ms. Keller had a vision for the future and what could be for the deaf and blind. She knew from experience what could be and she wanted that for everyone. Her philosophy inspires me every day."
Dr. Mascia credited the "heroes" in his life, including his mother-in-law who spent most of her life wheelchair-bound due to Muscular Dystrophy, for helping to mold his outlook.
"I have been fortunate to be a witness to those heroes who have demonstrated to me that nothing is impossible if we choose to think big, rely on each other and believe in what can be," he said. "All of my heroes believe in themselves and in other people and all have a very strong faith."
Dr. Mascia said his mother-in-law who spent 30 years in the classroom as an educator, long before the existence of the Americans with Disabilities Act, was an agent for change.
"She transformed her students and the way they viewed people with disabilities," he said. "People with disabilities are not less than people without disabilities; they are just different."
Joining Dr. Mascia on stage for Tuesday's lecture were Patrick Robertson, director of AIDB's Talladega Regional Center, and Donovan Beitel, a TROY alumnus and an instructor in the Institute's Business Enterprise Program.
"I experienced many barriers in my youth because I was deaf," said Robertson, an AIDB alumnus who went on to earn a bachelor's degree from Gallaudet University and a master's degree from Western Maryland College. "Many people would make fun of me because I was deaf. I was never part of any organizations or activities at school. Because I was deaf, I went to the sixth grade unable to read or write."
At the age of 12, Robertson's parents enrolled him in the Alabama School for the Deaf and his life began to change.
"What an exciting time that was in my life," he said. "I became involved and served as president of many organizations. I became Patrick, my given name, and not Pat the deaf boy. The Institute gave me the courage to go to college. I grew as a person. I became a person with no limits, no handicaps. I became, Patrick, a big mass of possibilities."
Beitel, who as a child was diagnosed with Stargardt disease, a form of juvenile macular degeneration, lost his central vision by the age of 10.
"I was the typical kid, doing the usual kid things, but over time I began to realize I was different," Beitel said. "When I recognized that I was different, doubt began to creep in."
Beitel said he is often asked about barriers he has faced in life.
"I face two barriers in life – me and you," he said. "One I can do something about and one I can do nothing about. One is internal and one is external. AIDB removed the barrier of 'me' from me."
While no one person can change the world, all have a role to play, Beitel said.
"I can't change the world, but I can do my part," he said. "How can you change the world? Repeat 'I won't doubt' and 'I will believe.'"
Entertainment for the lecture was presented by Malia Thibado, a second grade student at AIDB and the daughter of Paul and Karen Thibado of Pell City. She received a standing ovation after singing "Who I was Born to Be."
The Helen Keller Lecture is sponsored by Troy University, The Helen Keller Foundation for Research and Education, the Alabama State Department of Education, the Alabama State Department of Rehabilitation Services and the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind.