‘Get Busy Living or Get Busy Dying: You Have a Choice’

An Inteview With Catherine Henry

Ten years ago when Catherine Henry was 28, a “whitish blur” suddenly covered the center of both her eyes.

“I woke up one day and my vision was gone.” She tried to blink it away but nothing helped. “That was a dark and painful time for me,” she says of the six months and 17 doctors it took to finally get a diagnosis. “I’ll never forget it,” she says, remembering the neuro-ophthalmologist who told her her vision loss had “bottomed out” and she would likely not go totally blind, but the bad news, he said, was “that your optic nerve has atrophied and there is no cure.” That day she learned about Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy (LHON), a genetic condition, rare in females. She retained some peripheral vison, but is legally blind.

With assistive technology, Catherine Henry says “very few things are completely inaccessible.”

Talking with this vivacious lawyer today, an assistant attorney general with the Civil Law Division of the Office of the Attorney General of Tennessee, you wouldn’t guess what her journey has been since 2009. At the time of the onset, she was between jobs with no real direction, she says, and upon getting the news, just wanted “to get under the covers and never get back out. I did not have the drive or motivation to rise to the challenge of living without my sight. I could not think of what I could possibly do for a living.”

Her mother eventually gave her some life-saving advice. She said, “You have to get busy living or get busy dying. You have a choice to make.”

“I had no idea how to take the first step toward rehabilitating my life,” Catherine says. “I cried out to God, Help me. I don’t know what to do.”

She soon learned about Tennessee’s Division of Rehabilitative Services and when her counselor there asked her what services she needed, all she could think of was the need to learn how to navigate the world, and possibly how to use a computer again to someday do clerical work. The assistive technology instructor they provided suggested that she could do much more, and didn’t want her to let her broadcasting degree go to waste. She asked Catherine what she had always wanted to do.

So, recalling the character Christine from episodes of “Night Court” she watched as a kid, she said, half-joking, “Well, I always wanted to go to law school. I love language. Lawyers read a lot, write a lot and speak a lot. I want to do that,” she told the instructor, who said, “’You can do it!’

“She taught me that textbooks can come in digital form, and that there are some attorneys who are blind. When she said that someone like me had done it before, I knew I could do it.” Then she told Catherine that Belmont University was opening a law school the following fall.

“That person changed my life,” she says.

Soon she hired a tutor to read questions to her to study for the LSAT — for months. She was a self-described visual learner, so she had to acquire a different way of learning. Then she applied to Belmont’ Laws inaugural class — and got in.

“I had never been in a class setting with vision loss and [Belmont Law School] had never accommodated anyone with a visual impairment before,” she says. “We learned together.” She got an apartment near the school so she could walk to class.

“I would pray just get me through this day. Then, help me do a little better than the day before. And it happened,” she says. “The second semester I made the dean’s list! I had gotten into the groove of learning by listening only.” She made the dean’s list every semester thereafter, graduating with honors in the top 10 percent of her class.

After passing the bar — which she took over four days with a reader and scribe — she worked for a nonprofit disability rights organization, because she wanted to give back what she had been given. Then in 2017 she began working in the AG’s Office, a job she clearly loves.
“I’m still so honored that I’m even here. It’s a dream I could never have envisioned for myself.”  

Depending “completely on assistive technology,” she uses an iPad Pro with a  keyboard in place of a standard computer. Its built-in screen reader software, called VoiceOver, reads everything out loud. A large desktop video magnifier with a camera on it allows her to enlarge and access a few words at a time, when reading from paper is necessary. With all of that, she says, “very few things are completely inaccessible.”

How did she meet this challenge? Faith, determination and a belief in herself.

“It was crucial to believe in myself. I knew that if I stayed focused but patient, I could eventually do it. I had to stop thinking I needed to get everything right the first time,” she says. She tries to “remember that I’m still learning and growing.”
In 2016, Catherine married, and now she and her husband Jeff have a 19-month-old daughter, Lily,  “the joy of her life.”

 “I have the life now I would never have had, but for this happening to me,” she says. “It took me years to be able to say that. I’m not here despite it, but because of it.”

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