Student's determination prevails over blindness

Special Photo 
Jake McMahan, a 2010 graduate of Luella High School, was recently awarded the Most Improved Male Award through Georgia's Career Technical Instruction Program.

Special Photo Jake McMahan, a 2010 graduate of Luella High School, was recently awarded the Most Improved Male Award through Georgia's Career Technical Instruction Program.

Locust Grove resident, Jake McMahan, has overcome many challenges to put himself in a position to succeed in life.

McMahan, now 20, graduated in May from Luella High School. He is preparing to attend the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults in Sands Point, N.Y., where he will learn skills necessary in gaining his independence as a blind man, with a slight hearing impairment. He plans to leave on July 19, to spend a few months at the center.

"I am a little nervous," he said. "But I believe that if other blind people can succeed, I can surely do it. I'm thinking about going to an in-state college to major in broadcasting, web design, or software programming."

McMahan's blindness comes with the effects of Norrie's Syndrome. It is an inherited eye (retinal) disorder that leads to blindness in male infants at birth, or soon after birth, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine's Genetics Home Reference.

"About one third of individuals with Norrie disease develop progressive hearing loss, and more than half experience developmental delays in motor skills, such as sitting up and walking," according to Genetics Home Reference.

McMahan was diagnosed with Norrie's Syndrome at 18 months old, said his mother, Janice McMahan. She said his sight and hearing began to deteriorate when he was 4 months old. "I was scared at first, having another child with blindness," his mother said. She, and her husband, Tim, have four children. An older son, John, also has Norrie's Syndrome, and autism.

"We've had a bunch of hurdles, but we've been able to overcome them," she said. "So far, life has been great for us. I'm very proud of Jake, and I hope he succeeds in life — I know he will."

Her son said his quality of life is not much different from others his age, and is more than what some originally thought it would be. "They called me a miracle," said Jake, who exceeded doctors' developmental expectations. He said he is able to walk, hear most things, and has no signs of autism.

Overcoming odds has won him recognition and respect. This spring, he was awarded the Carl D'Angelo Scholarship and the Most Improved Male Award through Georgia's Career Technical Instruction (CTI) Program.

Regina Akery, McMahan's CTI teacher at Luella, describes him as an innovative student with a surprising sense of humor. "When he was taking family and consumer science, he was making a waffle with a waffle iron," Akery said. "I was a nervous wreck. He was O.K., but I was a wreck. I was sitting there trying to figure out, ‘Where am I going to get a timer,' because he couldn't see what time the waffles would be done. But he had already programmed it on his [laptop] computer.

"And he has the greatest sense of humor," she said. "At the start of the year, we ask students what do they prefer in the classroom — darker, or bright lighting, and he says, ‘It doesn't matter to me, because it's always dark in my world.'"

McMahan was lauded as an inspiration to others during his high school graduation. He received the school's Principal Award. "The Principal Award goes to the person that makes it to graduation, and has gone through the most difficult road, and overcome the most difficult challenges to do it," said George Eckerle, principal at Luella.

Eckerle noted McMahan's tenacity and ambition to make himself a part of the school's culture. "He was a great kid, always very positive," said Eckerle. "I think he may have been a little bit of an inspiration for everybody. When you are having a rough day, you just look at him and say, ‘Wow, look at how difficult it can be.'"

McMahan said his decision to attend Luella was based partly on the inspiration others provided him. He had attended the Georgia Academy for the Blind in Macon for 14 years, before he decided to enroll at the much larger public school. "If other blind people can transfer to public school and do this, why can't I," he said.

He immersed himself in different programs at the school to help guide him toward a career in computers and broadcasting, and participated in the work-based learning program, producing commercials for the school, area businesses and non-profit agencies.

McMahan also produces his own web-based radio show, which includes airing country and soft rock music in between musings on technology and politics. He said he enjoys playing Grand Theft Auto on his personal computer by hearing the action, and making maneuvers in the game based on the sounds.

"I've got to make a life of my own, get a job," he said. "I want to make a change in the world for blind people. The main point," he said, "is, if you really believe that you can do something, and you set your mind to it, you should be able to do it by focusing on it. Blindness doesn't really stop me. I feel like, despite my disability, despite my hearing impairment, I'm going to do what I want to do."