Living Large…and Blind: Beth Finke

by Shandi Pace

 

Beth Finke has had a life filled with adversity. She experienced a significant life event in her twenties that would alter her life’s course forever. Without her strength and resilience, others may have continued on their path without hearing such a powerful story.

It all started at the age of seven when Beth was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. She grew up knowing that one day she might get kidney disease, lose her sight or even have a limb amputated.

While on her honeymoon with her husband Mike in Scotland, Beth started to see spots. They had stopped driving to allow sheep to cross when she noticed the sheep had spots on their wool. Beth removed her contact lenses to clean them, but she could still see the spots when she put them back in.

As they returned to Illinois, they found a specialist in Chicago, where Beth had laser treatments that helped get rid of the spots for a while. Then, one morning, she woke up not being able to see out of one of her eyes. The second eye took a few weeks, but it too eventually closed. “It was like a window shade being pulled down really slowly,” Beth said.

Before the second eye permanently went dark, Beth pulled out old photo albums to remember what people looked like. After a few dire surgeries that work for most patients, she officially lost her sight.

At the time Beth had lost her vision, she was working at the University of Illinois. As an employee, she could take free classes, which she did during her leave of absence. After one of her classes, the professor told her there was a problem with the bill. Beth made her way to the admissions office, where they told her she had been terminated from her position.

She had lost her job strictly because of her sight. Beth considered a lawsuit but soon realized she didn’t want to work there. Instead, she focused on what she could do next.

After a few more surgeries, she remained in the hospital and had to lay face down to keep the patches on her eyes. These surgeries made it extremely difficult to write, so Beth turned to record her own voice instead.

Every day she was in the hospital, she would speak into a tape recorder about any thoughts that came to her head. Once she made it to rehab treatments, she transcribed her own words and thought they would make a good story. Beth listened to countless books written by blind people to see if her story had already been told. These thoughts eventually made up her memoir titled Long Time, No See, which she published in 2003.

Out of work, every day, Beth would read the classifieds to find jobs. She eventually landed on being a nude model. This position worked perfectly with her schedule, as her son Gus was in school during the day. Gus was born with the genetic condition trisomy 12p, a rare chromosomal anomaly.

During the modelling sessions, Beth would craft stories in her head. As a freelance writer, her first written piece was an essay in 1999 about employment for people with disabilities. She eventually made it onto Oprah Winfrey’s after-show in 2001.

In 2006, Beth participated in a project with Easter Seals to determine if blind people can manage and update webpages. She later became an interactive community coordinator for Easter Seals and now works as a moderator for their blog.

Over the last few years, Beth had been leading memoir writing classes for seniors. Due to the pandemic, she has switched to leading three classes a week on Zoom. Her students bring their written work to class and have the chance to read them aloud to everyone.

She has had more personal battles this year as well. In April, her husband was hospitalized with COVID-19. At the time, he couldn’t get tested until he had to go to the hospital because he didn’t have any serious symptoms. Beth also tested positive for the virus but was asymptomatic.

Beth has experienced a tremendous amount of grief in her life. From her experience with losing her sight and others within her family, she wants to ensure people remember to grieve in their own way. “Don’t let people tell you that you’re doing something wrong with your grief. They’re not going through it with you, and everybody grieves differently.”

Beth is thankful to have had the opportunity to try so many new things. “The good thing for me about having trouble getting jobs was that it forced me to try everything. Try nude modelling! Try web content management!” Beth said.

For more information on Beth Finke and her book “Long Time, No See,” check out her website.

 

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