Shirley Cheng knows what it is like to have to fight. An award-winning author, motivational speaker, self-empowerment expert, advocate of parental rights in children’s medical care, poet, and all-around-inspirational-person, Shirley contracted severe juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA) when she was just eleven months old. As if that weren’t enough to live with, at 17 she lost her eyesight. Yet, despite all the hardships, Shirley has an unquenchable passion for life. Living by the motto: “Although I'm blind, I can see far and wide; even though I'm disabled, I can climb high mountains. I let the ropes of hope in Jehovah God haul me high!” she draws from her own experiences to bring humor, hope, and healing to as many people as she possibly can.
Born in 1983 in New York and raised by her mother, Juliet Cheng, Shirley contracted JRA as an infant after receiving a tuberculin skin test. Before two months had passed, the disease had spread to nearly all of her joints. Her early years were spent in constant pain, there were some days when she was unable to even move or sit and she was confined to a wheelchair (and has been so confined ever since). For her first eleven years, she spent most of her time in and out of hospitals, traveling between two countries (China and the United States) to take advantage of different medical treatments. Juliet fought hard for her daughter’s health—losing custody of Shirley twice in the process in the United States when she disagreed with the doctors and hospitals over Shirley’s medical care. The custody battles were enormously terrifying for Shirley. Because, despite the pain she endured, her childhood was happy. And, it was all due to Juliet.
“My childhood was--and still is--very challenging yet rewarding and always filled with abundant love from my beloved mother. The custody battles were terrifying to say the least. Not only was my life in danger but also I could not be with the only source of love and security: mother. Mother and I have always been extremely close, like a pair of binary stars ever revolving around each other, so it would have been an absolute nightmare if we were separated for so many years. For instance, Mother would not be allowed to see me for 20 years if she had lost the first custody case, when I was 22-months old.” Turning 18 was not just a milestone for Shirley, it also brought immense relief. Finally, nobody on the planet could ever again threaten to take her from her mother! Now a parental rights in children’s medical care advocate, she wants to help today’s loving parents protect and keep custody of their children. “When doctors ask yes or no, parents should have the right to say no.” (Shirley’s online petition for this cause can be found at: http://www.petitiononline.com/parentr7/petition.html)
As a youngster, Shirley dreamed of being able to read and write. But, because of her medical condition, she was unable to go to school until she was 11. When that day came at last, Shirley was ecstatic! Finally, she’d be able to sit in a classroom with other kids and learn about the world around her. However, school posed new challenges. “My schooldays were challenging, rewarding, and wonderful--challenging because I had to depend on uncaring one-on-one aides for my physical needs; rewarding because I absolutely loved to learn and absorb the knowledge of life; and wonderful because it was my first time truly interacting with kids my age, unlike in gloomy hospital settings.”
When Shirley first started school, she knew only her ABCs and very simple English. Her book knowledge was virtually non-existent, so she was placed in a special education elementary school class. However, with her thirst for knowledge she quickly absorbed everything that was thrown her way and mostly self-taught herself how to read. After about 180 days of school attendance, she had mastered English and her grade level in all subjects and was immediately enrolled in the mainstream sixth grade in middle school. Generally the only physically disabled student in the entire school, or one of only two such students, Shirley relied on a special aide to help her and faced physical struggles that most schoolchildren do not. But, the very people who were hired to help her were typically the ones who treated her the worst. It is this experience that has led her to promote aide advocacy for the disabled. “I had aides ranging from unloving to incompetent and everything in between. I complained to my school, they ignored my voice, and I kept hurting. Except during eighth grade when I had the most wonderful and caring principal.”
Although Shirley suffered physically from her experiences with her aides, she never let it hinder her ability to succeed. She was a top honor student, a contributor to her high school newspaper as an artist, and even ran for student body vice president as a freshman! But, life was about to hand her another curveball. At the beginning of 10th grade, her eyesight began to deteriorate. Initially, Shirley used magnifying glasses on enlarged print to do her schoolwork. And, she listened intently to the teachers during class because she was unable to see the blackboard. Although she still maintained excellent grades, Shirley had lost her vision completely by the spring. She immediately stopped going to school, but it did not stop her from loving the life she lived. “I first focused on making the most out of my situation and moving forward. I did not involve any negative emotions. I knew that it was not the end of my life, and that being miserable would not help me in any way. In fact, it would make my situation worse than it was already. Instead, I continually see--only with my heart now. I look forward to a bright future by making today, each day, my best day, using the strength Jehovah God has given me.”
After leaving school, Shirley received home tutoring and completed her schoolwork using cassette tapes and recorders. Her severe JRA has limited her from using Braille, but she found she was able to write and calculate long chemistry equations in her head! Still, Shirley could not accumulate enough credits to graduate from high school--though her average was 97 for what she could complete--so she settled for earning her GED diploma instead. And, she did not let her inability to use Braille stop her! “I took the entire GED test, including mathematical calculations and problem solving, graphs, and an essay, in my head without Braille; still, I scored an exceptional 3280 on the exam, earning me a special recognition award. I was a student speaker at my GED graduation ceremony and received a standing ovation for my speech.”
“Award-winning author, motivational speaker, self-empowerment expert, advocate of parental rights in children’s medical care, poet, and all-around-inspirational-person Shirley Cheng says, ‘It is my blindness that has turned me into an author. Surprisingly, I feel that I am the most surprised of all of the fact that I'm an author.’”
With her dream of being a professional visual artist on hold until after she is able to get eye surgery to restore her vision, Shirley stepped into a different role after receiving her GED. The newly blind young woman with immense determination became an author! At age 20, she took a story she’d written in high school and expanded it for a writing contest sponsored by her local newspaper. Afterward, she could not stop thinking about the characters and by the time she knew it, she had written eight short stories about them--despite only being able to type with her two index fingers as a result of her severe JRA; still, she could type about 65 words per minute. The collection became her first book, Daring Quests of Mystics. It was followed with her autobiography, The Revelation of a Star’s Endless Shine. All told, Shirley wrote three books that year! And, now at tender age of 26, she is an award-winning author with 20 book awards (including Mom’s Choice Awards and nine Parent to Parent Adding Wisdom Awards), author and contributor to 25 books, and designs and maintains her own web site (http://www.shirleycheng.com/). “I'd actually never planned to be a professional writer even though writing comes very easy for me and I enjoy it. It is my blindness that has turned me into an author. Surprisingly, I feel that I am the most surprised of all of the fact that I'm an author. When I was in middle school, it felt like every one of my peers urged me to become an author when I grew up. But my mind was made up on becoming a visual artist and famous scientist to find cures to all the devastating diseases out there. Yet, for the time being, I have become what everyone thought I should be because they loved my writings. Frankly, I would not have chosen to be an author if I had not lost my eyesight. But since I could not express myself in my artwork and I still want to pursue the arts, I turned to writing to share with others my imagined worlds and creations.”
Shirley has already achieved so much in her short lifetime, but she has even more on her to-do list. She is hoping a successful eye surgery in the future will allow her to earn multiple science doctorates from Harvard University. And, she’d love to be a professional visual artist. But, true to her uplifting, positive nature, she is strong in her knowledge that what has happened thus far is all a part of God’s plan. “Although I would rather be sighted than blind, I am now able to touch others with messages of hope and inspiration through my writing. This divine turn of events has given me this special opportunity, I believe. Otherwise, I would have just gone to college and graduate to become a scientist, not touching people's lives the way I am now. Is it my calling? I do not know, but one thing I am certain is that I will just leave it to God to take my hand and lead the way, as I enjoy every second of my exciting journey. It is true that I've lost my eyesight and the ability to walk, but I'm never scornful. Instead, I'm simply grateful for having owned these powers before. Plus, I'm still the owner of so many other wonderful gifts! God can always turn a situation from impossible to possible. I hope people can learn from my story that no one and nothing can stop you if you do not let them--only you can stop yourself.”
Thank you Shirley, for sharing your Story with us.
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© 2009 by Tamar Burris Story of My Life®