At age 24, Deborah McAlexander was told she had retinitis pigmentosa — a genetic disorder that causes loss of vision. Doctors told her she would be completely blind and deaf by age 30.
Now, McAlexander, a Jefferson City native, is legally blind. She has no sight in her left eye, and has a small center field of vision in her right eye about the size of a wide drinking straw.
Despite the challenge that came with losing her eyesight, McAlexander followed her dreams to compete as a para-dressage athlete. Dressage is an equestrian sport involving horses and riders performing predetermined movements by memory in a ring. McAlexander competes with her 10-year-old Bavarian Warmblood horse named Cornet Noir.
McAlexander hopes to compete in the 2020 Paralympic Games and the 2022 World Equestrian Games as the only competing equestrian rider with a blindness disability in the United States.
In July, she was the first U.S. dressage athlete with a visual impairment to receive confirmed international classification from the International Blind Sports Federation.
On Tuesday night, a group gathered at The Linc to hear McAlexander speak as part of the first installment of the "Stronger Through Diversity" series.
Clad in knee-high riding boots, riding breeches and jacket, with a medal around her neck and a white cane in hand, McAlexander spoke to the group of around 25 attendees.
During her speech, she shared her story of becoming blind at age 24 and how it has changed her life. As a motivational speaker, McAlexander uses her story of adversity to inspire others.
McAlexander said when she first received her diagnosis, and had to accept she would be legally blind for the rest of her life, it felt like a death sentence. A scholarship performance violinist at St. Louis Conservatory of Music at the time, she was convinced her life and her dreams were over.
"For several years, I wandered through life without direction," she said.
Eventually, McAlexander realized she had a decision to make.
"Two choices were before me. I could allow myself to be imprisoned in this low-bar, blind box or I could jump out of that box and challenge Mr. Adversity," McAlexander said. "I chose to jump and challenge."
Her message to others is "losing eyesight is far less significant than losing vision beyond eyesight."
"If I can overcome the adversity blinding my vision beyond eyesight, so can each of you," she told the group. "Every challenge and every difficulty we successfully confront and identify and overcome prepares us to be able to handle all the other adversities and obstacles that happen the rest of our lives."
Following McAlexander's speech, there was a panel discussion about disability.
The panel was made up of five women who are affected or involved with disabilities in different ways: Melinda Cardone, Deb Hendricks, Danielle Schwartz and Sara Eichholz, as well as McAlexander.
The panel discussed issues facing those who have physical or developmental disabilities in Jefferson City and in general.
Eichholz, who was born with cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, said it can be difficult to navigate in Jefferson City due to a lack of curb cuts on the sidewalk or trash cans blocking the way.
"It's very challenging. There are a lot of things that most people don't see when they go down the sidewalk or the street that are very challenging for me," Eichholz said.
The issue there is awareness, the panel agreed. The community needs to be more aware of what individuals with disabilities face and how the city meets their needs.
"It's the little things that make a huge difference, and if we're not aware, we're not thinking about doing those small things," Hendricks said.
The panel said there are a good amount of resources in Jefferson City, including Central Connections, the Independent Living Resource Center and Day Solutions. Cardone serves as the executive director of the ILRC, and Hendricks is on the board of directors. Schwartz is the executive director of Day Solutions, a day time care program for those with disabilities.
"All of us want all of us to live in this community as independently as possible, and that should be the goal for every person," Hendricks said.
Schwartz said, in general, Jefferson City has done a good job of supporting those with developmental disabilities, but there is a need for more after-school, summer and post-graduate programs.
Cardone spoke on laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination based on disabilities and requires public accommodations to be accessible, but pointed out laws don't mean the accessibility is there.
"Just because it's law doesn't mean everybody follows it," Cardone said. "So it's up to us as individuals with disabilities, as advocates, as family members to step up, speak up and insure that our community is following those laws and that people with disabilities can live here."
In closing, the panelists were asked what message they would give to someone growing up with a disability.
"A lot of times, parents are given a diagnosis for their child, and they think it's the end of the world — and it doesn't have to be that way. It really doesn't have to be that way," Eichholz said. "So just dream and do what you would normally do, just go on and do it. It's possible."
The "Stronger Through Diversity" series, started by the Jefferson City Commission on Human Relations, will feature speakers from diverse groups at quarterly events in the hopes of bringing diverse voices to Jefferson City.
The speaker series was inspired by the Human Relations Commission's mission, chairman Mitchell Woodrum said. He said he was pleased with the turnout at Tuesday's event and thinks it is a good sign for the future of the series.
"It was very encouraging for our first event to go this well," Woodrum said.
The next event will take place in February and will focus on race, Woodrum said, to go along with African American History Month.