Disabled woman earns law degree
At birth, doctors didn't know what was wrong and had no hope for her.
KIRTLAND, Ohio (AP) -- Kim Stenger was genuinely surprised to receive the Student of the Year award from her classmates graduating from Case Western Reserve University School of Law.
"It wasn't an election," she said. "They had to write in my name. And I certainly wasn't the best student in my class."
Kim spends her life in a wheelchair and is, by the world's measures, disabled. She was born with congenital sensory neuropathy, a condition so rare that it's described instead of named.
But she's so animated, so inquisitive and so very much involved in living every minute of her life, that within moments of meeting Kim, her disability diminishes in importance. A few minutes more and she becomes an inspiration.
Kim is now 26, and throughout her life, she's proven again and again that there is really nothing wrong with her.
In fact, as her law school classmates perceived, there's a lot that's right about Kim Stenger. Their award has a place of honor next to her law school diploma in her family's Kirtland living room.
"I have a disability," she said, matter-of-factly. "I need assistance to do some things, and I have more issues to deal with than other people. But there really are very few things I can't do."
Anticipating the questions most people are too polite to ask, she explains: "I was born without a sensory nervous system. I have no feeling anywhere. I can't feel temperature or pain, and I have no reflexes."
She doesn't blink, so tears collect in her eyes, sometimes making it appear that she is weeping. She daintily dabs at the saliva that tends to accumulate around her lips. The automatic swallowing reflex also is missing.
"When she was born, no one knew what was wrong with her," said her dad, Rick Stenger, who retired last year as publisher of The News-Herald. "At three months, they sent her home to die and said she'd be a vegetable.
"But she was reading at age 2."
Her parents believe that her keen intelligence is perhaps nature's way of compensating for her disability much as those without sight have more acute hearing.
But Kim is more matter-of-fact about her abilities.
"My parents always found ways for me to do things other kids could do, so as I grew up, I learned how to find ways to do those things for myself," she said.
Kim's gamin face, framed by short brown hair streaked with blonde, lights up in a wide smile as she recounts family trips to Disney World, cruises and Ohio amusement parks. She and her younger sister, Kelly, now 21, enjoyed those trips when they were girls, and the shared good times of their close family continue now that they're older.
Her parents have always done what was necessary to share the world with their daughters.
"When we went to the Outer Banks, Kim wanted to go up the huge sand dunes there," recalled Joan Stenger. "So I carried her up."
Joan works out to stay fit so she can still carry her 70-pound daughter.
When the Stengers went to Indians games, her dad would check Kim's portable wheelchair and carry his daughter to the stadium's regular seats, where she'd sit with the rest of the family.
"We didn't want her to feel different," Rick Stenger said. "People may have wondered why I was carrying her, but we decided early on that she'd be included in anything and everything we do."
Kim has dreams for the future and expects to find ways to achieve them.
"I want to have a career I'm passionate about, to fall in love, have a husband and children," she said. "I may not be able to give birth, but I definitely want children to be a part of my life."
As other children do, she had her share of mishaps when she was a child, learning from all of them. In most cases they were typical scrapes and bruises. But her inability to feel pain resulted in some more serious accidents.
"Once, in high school home economics class, I grabbed a hot panhandle and got burned pretty badly," she said. "But I didn't know what had happened until on the way home from school, when I saw how red and swollen my hand had become."
When her family lived in the Philadelphia area, she attended public high school and was included in regular classes.
"It was sometimes hard for my family to see how I had to struggle with things, but it was good for me in the long run," she said. "I was at the top of my class and the only one in a wheelchair."
Her streak of independence allowed her to live on campus at Kent State University, where she majored in computer information systems.
Her dad was reluctant to let Kim live independently. Her mom was Kim's advocate.
"It was time," recalled Joan Stenger. "Kent had a good program of student aides to help her out, but at first, I was going down every weekend."
But, much as other moms adapt to their firstborn going off to college, Joan gradually became more confident.
It took Kim's dad a little longer to come to terms with his daughter's growing independence.
"I didn't want any part of it," he recalled. "But I was proven wrong. Living at Kent was a wonderful, wonderful step toward leadership and independence for Kim."
Although Kim had to hire personal care attendants to help her get up, go to bed, shower, cook and take notes in class, she adapted well to college life.
Classmates included her at parties and in going to concerts, and Kim was assertive enough to help them help her. Well aware that others can be intimidated by her wheelchair, she introduced them to her portable chair and showed them how it transports easily.
"I don't weigh much, and it's really easy to move me," she said.