Liz O’Dell Wehling, assistant director of reunion giving for the Cornell Annual Funds, opened the 2018 Soup & Hope series with a lesson she learned from her mother: “Your mindset matters. It matters how you approach every situation.”
Her mother had learned that lesson from the doctor who first diagnosed Wehling with albinism – an inherited disorder in which a person has partial or complete loss of pigmentation of the skin, eyes and hair – when Wehling was six months old. On learning the diagnosis, her mother started to cry, saying her child would never be normal. Her doctor agreed that with that attitude, that was certain. But, he said, “If you treat Liz like a normal child, that is what she will be.”
Wehling’s mother followed that advice as she and her brother, who also was albino, grew up. “She let us run and play and get dirty and climb trees,” Wehling said. “We played any sport you can imagine; we danced. We had a real childhood.” Her mother never treated her as if she had a disability.
Since Wehling has no melanin, she sunburns easily and must take steps to prevent that. Her eyes also lack macula and the optic nerves don’t crisscross as they do in those without albinism, so Wehling sees the world as a panorama rather than being able to focus on an individual item or person.
“I can’t legally drive or do surgery,” she said. A guide dog helps her navigate through her daily routine.
Still, Wehling traveled to Japan when she was 16 and to Sweden when she was 20. She found community when she went to a conference by the National Organization of Albinism and Hypopigmentation, where she met 40 other people who “looked just like me.” Wehling now is a member of that organization’s board of directors.
“The limitations others put on us are not ones we need to own,” Wehling said. “We need to be confident in our abilities and know they are our own.”
She said she would not have her career, have married her husband or received her master’s degree if not for that confidence her mother and others had instilled in her. “It may take me longer; I may do it differently; but I will get it done,” she said.
“You can look at a wall and say, ‘I can’t get over that, there’s no way I can get over that,’” Wehling said. “Or you can look at a wall and say, ‘If I move a ladder over there, I can use that to get over.’ The choice is really yours.”
The next Soup & Hope talk will be Feb. 1 at noon in Sage Chapel, featuring Laura Lewis, a former Cornell staff member who serves on the Common Council representing the city of Ithaca’s Fifth Ward.