LACK OF SIGHT DOES NOT DIMINISH VISION OF SERVICE
Mary Lee Turner has dedicated her life to helping others, from spending decades educating children who live with sight and hearing loss, to helping adults with disabilities feel less isolated, to mentoring adults on how to live with vision loss.
Over the past 74 years, Turner has worked as a transitional teacher for the St. Augustine school of the deaf and blind, as a case worker for the Oregon Commission for the Blind and as a district superintendent for Portland area Lions Clubs.
“I was disheartened (as a teacher) with the impact of parents treating their children like they can’t learn,” Turner explained. “We all work hard to live up to what other people’s expectations are. I’m profoundly aware of the people who’ve led long, full lives and are now learning to live with vision loss as well. I’ve been truly privileged to be in the homes of hundreds of (those) people.”
For Turner, helping others navigate and thrive despite differing abilities is very personal. In the late 1940s when Turner and her twin sister were born, over-oxygenation in natal incubators was a common problem that caused many issues for newborns, including vision loss. After being born prematurely, Turner and her sister were incubated, and their retinas burned by the over-oxygenation leaving her sister fully blind and Turner with just partial peripheral vision in her left eye.
“Even though I’ve never driven a car (legally), browsed a newspaper or looked across the room into the face of a good friend, I’ve got 74 years of life experience: mine, my sister’s and hundreds of others,’” Turner said. “All of the details (that go into doing those things), it’s never casual for us. It’s always planned, and we go do it.”
Not considered fully blind, Turner was deprived of learning tools, such as Braille books, as a child, which forced her to use her minimal vision to read large-print textbooks.
Even still, Turner was one of the first blind children to be admitted to Portland Public Schools. Her mother never wanted the twins to be treated as less than as intellectually competent, so she insisted they receive a mainstream education.
Though the schools didn’t make many accommodations for Turner, at the age of 3, her household received a visit from a member of the Portland Lions Club and her mother soon became a member. The Lions are dedicated to connecting those living with vision and hearing loss to resources, and they gave the twins Braille riders so Turner felt called to join the club as an adult in 1993.
Thus began Turner giving back to the club and serving adults and children who were similarly abled.
“I want to give back for what (the Lions) gave me,” Turner said.
But the Lions weren’t the only ones to benefit from Turner’s generous spirit, knowledge and perspective.
Though Turner has lived in Portland much of her life, she has served on the board of the nonprofit organization for the blind — Hull Foundation and Learning Center — for more than a decade now. Besides being an active board member, she also leads workshops for those with no to low vision who visit the center.
With a master’s degree from University of Oregon in therapeutic recreation, Turner helps on recreational trips for Hull Park guests, which give them opportunities to do the “possible,” rock climbing, kayaking and more. She also mentors others through “Living with Sight Loss” seminars, giving folks hope that they can lead fulfilling everyday lives regardless of their sight.
“People come out to the park chagrined, embarrassed and afraid, and by the end, they don’t want to leave,” Turner explained. “We have made this a safe place for everyone. When I teach, my goal is to think about what it is people always want — to be heard.
I love making a positive difference. Every experience can be a learning experience. I think of myself as: A) a gardener, and also, B) a pilot. I create a safe space for people to take (control) of their lives and get back in the sun.”