Beacon Stories

Sep 20, 2019

Blind Miracle on Ice

Shawn was diagnosed with Usher syndrome at a young age. Shawn now stays involved with the blind community and participates in his local blind hockey league. In his own words, he shares his journey at the Toyota-USA Hockey Disabled Hockey Festival.

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By Shawn Hewson

Shawn Hewson putting on his hockey gear and ice skates giving a thumbs up.

Shawn Hewson in hockey gear and ice skates.

My name is Shawn and I have Usher syndrome type 3, which means I have vision impairments combined with hearing impairments. My parents discovered my hearing loss at 4 years old, after realizing that I wasn’t just ignoring them when called from behind. To this day, I wear a cochlear implant in my left ear and a behind-the-ear hearing aid in my right ear. At 7 years old, my vision loss (retinitis pigmentosa) was diagnosed soon after a T-ball game where I couldn’t locate the baseball that was hit in my direction in the outfield.

In 1996 at the age of 28, a local retinal specialist told me that I would nearly go blind in two years.  Although that did not come true, it did push me to get involved with the blind community in order to better prepare and guide me along my journey in life with Usher syndrome going forward. I was encouraged by my doctor, Dr. Eliot Berson at Mass. Eye and Ear, to get involved locally and that is what brought me to the Foundation Fighting Blindness chapter in Twin Cities. I participated in the inaugural Twin Cities VisionWalk in 2007 and just about every year since.

Today, my field of vision for each eye is roughly 12-15 degrees, 20/100 central vision, night blindness, some color blindness, and high sensitivity to bright lights. As things continue to become more difficult in all aspects of my life, my priorities change, and I’ve learned to adapt along the way. As a result, my family life as a husband and father has become more functional, I am highly engaged at my workplace, and I have a strong desire to be even more involved in the Usher syndrome community.

Shawn with his team members from the 2019 Disabled Hockey Festival as follows: Lonny, Shawn, Nick and Chris.

Shawn with his team members from the 2019 Disabled Hockey Festival. Left to right: Lonny, Shawn, Nick and Chris.

I recently became more involved by joining the local blind hockey team as a player. The Minnesota Wild professional hockey organization launched Minnesota's first-ever blind hockey program in October 2018. In blind hockey, the puck is approximately three times the size of a standard puck and is made from metal with ball bearings inside that cause it to make noise upon impact. That design is what helps the players locate the puck, but it is more of a challenge for me because I do not hear the puck noise as well as others do.

In late December 2018, I was asked by my coaches if I wanted to go to Tampa, Florida for the Toyota-USA Hockey Disabled Hockey Festival. My first reaction was, “No way! I have never played real hockey games before and I will get slaughtered.” Thankfully, my teammate Nick, who is an incredible player, and Coaches, Chris and Lonny, were already committed to Tampa, and I received a ton of encouragement from family, friends, and my other teammates to attend.

Shawn wearing his gold medal from the 2019 Disabled Hockey Festival in Florida.

When I woke up the first morning of the festival in Florida, I was distraught with the jitters. I really felt like I didn’t belong there, and this was way out of my comfort zone. I had never played an organized hockey game before, had no idea what the game would look like, how good these players were, or if I would be able to hear the whistles and my coaches in an actual game.

There were several U.S. Blind Hockey National Team players on each team, which was pretty cool. We had Kevin Shanley, who usually plays defense for the National Team, as one of our goalies. One of my fellow defensemen was Daniel Belding from the U.S. National Team, and I was eager to learn more about being a defensive player from him.

Shawn and his daughters, Siena and Sadie, at the Foundation Fighting Blindness’ Twin Cities VisionWalk.

By the end of the festival, the realization sunk in that I was a part of something that was truly remarkable. Each game featured many hard-fought battles for the puck and a high level of effort from all the teams. And in the end, my team came out with a 6-0 triumph to capture the gold. Many great people came together to create this platform to allow us to play the game and embrace the passion of hockey with others who have the same kind of impairments, along with great coaches who understand our needs. New friendships were formed. Dreams were lived.

If you are to persevere in your struggles and overcome obstacles, it is essential to step out of your comfort zone. This allows you to grow in strength, confidence, and courage over time.