Pekin parishioner-grad succeeds despite sight, hearing challenges

By: By Tom Dermody

PEKIN — Because he is blind and nearly completely deaf, Josh Wertz often depends on being led by others, including his guide dog of eight years, Ace.

But when the Class of 2011 graduates from the Department of Human Development Counseling at the University of Illinois at Springfield process into commencement ceremonies this Saturday, it will be Josh — who is completing requirements for a master’s degree — in the lead.

A member of St. Joseph’s Parish in Pekin, Josh has been voted by faculty and students as tops in the program this year.

The honor of being the department’s graduation marshal surely recognizes the effort it takes Josh to do what other students take for granted — such as hearing a lecture, reading textbook assignments, or even getting to class.

But it’s also bestowed because, at age 33, Josh has not only persevered to meet the degree requirements, he has excelled with a grade-point average of 3.6.

“I know that if I don’t keep trying I’ll be forced to stay at home and live off Social Security and disability for the rest of my life,” said Josh.
He has done very little staying home of late.

On Monday through Friday, he works eight-hour days as an intern in the Behavioral Health Services department of OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria. Josh sits in on group therapy sessions and has even begun to get some individual counseling experience.

Every Saturday evening finds Josh and his grandmother — Pat Smith, with whom he resides — at Mass at St. Joseph’s Church in Pekin.

“I don’t take Ace with me,” said Josh of his trusted guide. “He barks whenever he hears a noise and I don’t want him giving (parish organist) Kevin Stark a hard time.”

Josh told The Catholic Post he has long moved beyond being angry with God over his disabilities, which are the result of juvenile diabetes and a rare genetic disorder called Wolfram syndrome.

He was diagnosed with optic atrophy in third grade at St. Joseph’s School, and had to use a magnifying glass to read. His vision got progressively worse, yet he graduated from Pekin High School and earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Illinois State University, where he read textbooks on a magnified TV screen.

By college his hearing loss also intensified, requiring a hearing aid for the first time.

While Josh dreamed of working in criminal justice, he knows the career is very sight-oriented.

So, even though his vision deteriorated to just one percent — “Sometimes I can see a light glare but nothing clear enough for me to see a shadow” — and he has very little hearing left, in 2007 he enrolled at the University of Illinois-Springfield to pursue a master’s in counseling.

He lived on campus in a dorm by himself. Well, there was also Ace, who quickly learned the routes for Josh’s classes.

And he’s also had help from emerging technologies as well as family — including his mother, Lisa Sharp, who lives in Mackinaw, and his aunt, Michelle Messmer — who helped type and proofread his papers. His computer can read Word documents out loud.

But those who know Josh understand the scope of the great daily challenges he overcomes by his own willpower.

“He doesn’t give up,” said Margo Kelly of Pekin, a longtime coworker with Josh’s grandmother. “He’s like anybody else. He wants to accomplish things in his life.”

“He has a lot of problems, but he doesn’t complain,” said Pat Smith, who drives Josh to work. “He wants to be able to help other people.”

And Josh realizes that, in that regard, his disabilities are sometimes positives when it comes to counseling others experiencing problems.

“They feel a little like they can relate better to me,” he said. Plus, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better listener than Josh Wertz.

“So much for me is based on close listening,” he said. Josh can’t see facial expressions or visually recognize who in a group is speaking, so he pays close attention to voice details such as pitch, repetition, etc.

And in counseling he has one other advantage. Ace.

“Everyone loves Ace,” said Josh. Seeing the dog is soothing for clients and puts them at ease.

Unfortunately, ten-year-old Ace is facing his own age-related disabilities, including arthritis. At the end of May, Josh will fly to New Jersey and receive another guide dog. He hopes to be able to keep Ace as well.

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