Ten years ago, 52-year-old John Stephens’ eyesight started deteriorating. People looked blurry and letters were indistinct. He first blamed his fuzzy vision on astigmatism, the middle-aged eye disorder. But it was far worse than that. Today, Stephens is completely blind yet he hasn’t let that stop him from achieving his dreams. Despite having to adjust to new ways of working because of his condition, he is continuing his studies and is elevating his skills as an accounting technician. Stephens shares his journey into darkness and back into the light.
A senior costing clerk in the finance department at the Drakenstein Municipality in Paarl, Stephens recalls the day he lost most of his vision.
“Looking back, I realise that my eyesight had been deteriorating over three years.” He hesitates, trying to contain his emotions, “But one afternoon at work I printed a document and I couldn’t see the text.”
A standard eye checkup, confirmed his worst fears. “The optometrist told me to consult an ophthalmologist immediately,” he recalls. A note of frustration and disbelief enters his voice. “After several months of testing, I was diagnosed with cone stroke dystrophy, a hereditary disorder that has no cure.”
(Cone dystrophy describes a group of rare eye disorders that affect the cone cells of the retina. In stationary cone dystrophy, symptoms tend to remain stable and are usually present at birth or early childhood, while in Stephens’ case progressive cone dystrophy symptoms slowly worsen over time.)
An operation yielded no improvement. Stephens reacted with shock and depression. “It’s very hard to talk about this. I was off work for a month and I didn’t know whether I could return to work.”
But he did.
Help from many quarters
Now, at 52 years old, Stephens continues to overcome obstacles and inspire those around him. “I want to show that blindness must not stop anyone from having a fulfilling career, especially in accounting,” he says. “I don’t know how I would have coped without the encouragement of my low vision optometrist. She told me it was possible for me to resume work although my employer would need to help me.”
Stephens is also grateful for the support he has received from the Drakenstein Municipality.
“They sent me on a 10 week course on how to adjust to the work environment and a colleague drove me to Cape Town each week for the course,” he says. The financial services department even purchased special software, including voice recognition technology, optical character recognition (which takes a photo of text and converts it to audio) and a computer programme to help Stephens get the job done.
While Stephens continues to adjust to living with his condition, he is enjoying the intellectual challenge of his studies and relishes putting his improving accounting skills to good use at the Drakenstein Municipality. The municipality’s support did not end there. It gave Stephens an opportunity to further his studies by enrolling in a unique municipality-focused qualification offered by Accounting Technicians South Africa (AT[SA]), a designation offered by the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA).
“I am currently busy with the Local Government Accounting Advanced Certificate (LGAAC),” says Stephens. “It was while doing the Local Government Accounting Certificate (LGAC) that I had already lost most of my vision.”
He is a top student on the LGAAC course, which he expects to complete in May next year.
“Stephens is an extra-ordinary student who has visual impairment,” says Mandisa Sibeko, Head of Education, Training and Development at Drakenstein Municipality. “He was selected as ‘Learner of the Year 2013’ from among his previous training group. Stephens continues to excel, displaying commitment and dedication and pushing beyond physical barriers towards completing the LGAAC qualification.
“The Drakenstein Municipality is grateful to the Local Government Seta (the programme funder), to Deloitte, who in collaboration with Skills Development Solutions, provides dedicated staff and course coordinators, and to AT(SA) for making Stephens’ dream possible”
Going above and beyond the call of duty
Deloitte, the AT(SA) accredited training provider offering Stephens’ LGAAC qualification, has gone beyond the call of duty to ensure that Stephens is able to complete the course successfully.
“When I first learnt of John’s impairment, I couldn’t believe that he was attempting an accounting qualification when he cannot see,” says Henk Badenhorst, facilitator at Deloitte’s training office in Pretoria. “I wasn’t aware of the aides available that would make it possible for him to operate in the work place.”
“Obviously it takes more effort to involve him in the discussions as you need to explain everything that is written in the guides as he doesn’t have the luxury of reading the guide. But what a pleasure it is to assist him.”
Badenhorst had to physically write down Stephens’ answers during his most recent examination, with invigilator Stephanie de Almeide of Deloitte, present. “We made audio copies of his responses,” says Badenhorst. “This was quite an exhausting exercise as you don’t want to act in such a way that could be perceived as helping him.”
“Although the exams felt long and tiring for all involved, John managed to complete all the work in the allocated time, and in good spirits,” reports de Almeide.
AT(SA) could not be prouder of Stephens’ dedication
“With over 2 million disabled South Africans in the country, it is encouraging to see what employers like the Drakenstein Municipality and Deloitte are doing to assist disabled persons with opportunities that better their employment and earning potential. We could not be prouder to be part of this amazing story.”