Growing up in rural Iowa, all Steven J. Faulkner wanted was to some day be a dentist. He stuck to his convictions, worked hard in high school and was eventually accepted to the University of Iowa College of Dentistry. “I had my dream,” he says. “My future was all planned out.”
While he was in dental school, Faulkner was hit with a bombshell: He was going blind. What he (and his ophthalmologist) thought was simple night blindness was soon diagnosed as a hereditary condition called retinitis pigmentosa. It was progressive and incurable. “I thought my career was over,” he said.
Fighting off depression, Faulkner decided to continue with his dental degree because he could still see well working at close range under intense lights. He even launched a solo practice in a small farming community in Iowa. But soon, he realized he was trying to hide his loss of sight outside the office—and that it would undoubtedly affect his livelihood.
He couldn’t see who people were on the street, once even saying hello to a store mannequin, and he eventually failed his driver’s test. He frantically called the American Dental Association and his former university, trying to find career alternatives. “No one know what to do with a blind dentist,” he says. “That was the lowest point in my life, sitting in this small town with the lights going out and no idea what to do. My career was closing down—it was just a matter of time.”
Newly married and only 38 years old, Faulkner abandoned his dream job in 1987. At a loss for what to do next and desperate to remain a productive member of society, Faulkner contacted the Iowa Department for the Blind. They sent over a counselor to help him adjust to his new life with vocational training and coping skills. “In talking with this counselor, I said to myself, ‘I’d like to do what this guy is doing—maybe even better,’ ” he says with a laugh. It was a life-changing moment for him.
Faulkner soon went back to school and received a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling. In 1989, he became a counselor for the Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services, where he is now the supervisor of the Mason City Area Office. Thanks to Faulkner’s hard work, he has brought vocational services and college counseling to thousands of high school students in Iowa over the past two decades. He has diligently forged relationships with school administrators and teachers so that they will recommend youth who might be struggling with their disabilities. “One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in life is that you have to be flexible,” he says. “You’ve got to bring to a job more than just college training. I think this is a big message for kids.”
He works with students who have physical disabilities, mental disabilities, and learning disorders. Faulkner and his team of counselors provide career training and gently help the students learn how to make the best decisions for their futures. There have been many students he has helped along the way, but he says he is particularly proud of one girl who, despite her intellectual challenges, was a social butterfly who desperately wanted to be a nurse.
She entered a nursing college, but was failing out. Faulkner met with her and slowly helped her understand how she could remain in this field. “She like the idea of working in a hospital, wearing white and having the respect of a medical job,” he says. He had her shadow several jobs including one as a dietary aide—and she loved it. “I got her an interview at a nursing home, and she eventually found a full-time job at a hospital in her home town.”
During the past year alone, Faulkner’s Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services—which is ranked number one in the nation among other state vocational agencies for transition referrals—reported successfully landing 207 jobs for clients. Fifty percent of these were clients were high school referrals, something Faulkner has promoted over the years. He says it is important for vocational trainers to start a relationship with students as young sophomores so they have time to plot their future.
You have to be a survivor and resilient and flexible in this life.
“Steve has been an incredible advocate for high school students with disabilities in supporting the coordination of services from high school to the post high school setting by supporting collaborative efforts between schools and Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services,” Sarah Knudsen, Special Education Administrator of Iowa’s Area Education Agency 267, tells TakePart.
Knudsen says she and Faulkner together spearheaded a statewide initiative to support the integration of high school special education services and the adult services that the vocational rehab provides. “He is a true role-model for students and adults with disabilities. He not only works on behalf of individuals with disabilities, but has provided leadership and collaborative working relationships with multiple service organizations to provide the most seamless service delivery possible as students transition into adult services.”
Faulkner today cannot see more than shadows and has not read print in over ten years. Nonetheless, he says with not a bit of irony, “I love seeing those lights come on.” He is referring, of course, to the spark of excitement that builds when one of his students suddenly determines what he or she wants to pursue as a career. “I can tell you that I don’t have any sadness at all that I’m not a dentist,” he says. “The best thing about dentistry I carried with me: I help people. You have to be a survivor and resilient and flexible in this life.”
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Kristin Kloberdanz is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. She has written for Time, the Chicago Tribune and Forbes.com about everything from economic crises and political snafus to best summer beach reads.