Marion Sheppard leans on her faith to encourage and inspire others with disabilities to keep it moving.
Posted in , Jul 19, 2021
When Marion Sheppard began to go blind in her 40s, she cried, she raged, she felt sorry for herself. Wasn’t it enough that she’d been partly deaf since childhood? That struggle, and the bullying that came with it, had made her strong and stubborn and nearly indomitable—or so she thought.
“This isn’t right,” she said to God over and over again. “This isn’t fair.” The doctors said she would never regain her sight; it would only get worse since her diagnosis, retinitis pigmentosa, is a progressive degenerative disease.
Since childhood, Sheppard had always been an avid dancer. But now she was so scared she rarely left her Bronx apartment. She was afraid that, unable to see a stranger’s approach, she would be mugged out on the streets. But mostly, she worried about the way she would appear to the world. She wondered constantly, “What if people look at me differently, treat me differently?”
But then after several months of being paralyzed with grief and fear, Sheppard heard God’s voice. “I want you to show the world what I can do for you,” He said. “You don’t understand yet, but you’ve got to keep moving.”
As hard as it was, Sheppard forced herself to go out. She attended a social event for people with visual impairments, and was shocked to find that not only did no one dance, they barely moved. They all just sat, still and physically withdrawn. “Oh no!” she told herself. “That is not the way I want to live!” She pushed herself not to be self-conscious. She bought a cane and named it Tyreek, the name she’d always planned on giving a son if she’d had one. A single mother of one daughter, Kokeda, Sheppard continued to work at her library job at The New York Times until her vision further declined in her 50s. And she kept moving, she kept dancing, just as God had instructed her.
Sheppard was 61 when she attended a summer camp for the blind in 2008, where she taught her first line dancing class.
After that, she asked at a Manhattan community center run by Visions, an organization for the visually impaired, if she could teach her class there, but was told no, that it would be too dangerous for the students. Still, she persisted, and soon convinced the administrators to let her teach line dancing and aerobics on a volunteer basis. Her classes proved to be so popular that in 2012, Visions hired her to be on staff. Sheppard was ecstatic.
Right up until the coronavirus pandemic shut things down, she was teaching over a dozen adoring students moves like the Electric Slide and the Cupid Shuffle to the music of Motown. Most of them were seniors whose eyesight had deteriorated as adults and so could remember the sighted world. But Sheppard instructed her beloved students on far more than dance steps. With confidence-building affirmations and constant encouragement, she also instilled in them dignity, independence and resilience. In her classes, the students got to be themselves without feeling inhibited by disability. Each student in her line dancing class would take a turn in the center of the group, busting moves as the others cheered them on.
As Sheppard says, “We may be blind, but we’re doing our thing.”
Sheppard hopes that her classes at Visions will resume shortly, but in the meantime, she’s keeping busy. She conducts a light exercise class for the blind once a week via conference call, and another in which the participants tell stories in response to R&B songs spun by two DJs. In addition to a certification to teach basic exercise from the New York Department of Parks and Recreation, Sheppard also recently became certified to teach water aerobics. As a way to combine movement with her faith, she formed a group called The Blind Sisterhood, which performs praise dancing to African liturgical hymns throughout the New York City area.
Sheppard’s advice for maintaining both physical and spiritual health, despite the obstacles that life throws at you? That’s simple: “Keep it moving until God calls you home.”