Ever since Emma Chambers was a child, she knew she wanted to pursue a career in healthcare. On April 29, her dream came true when she graduated from Samford’s School of Health Professions with her Doctor of Physical Therapy, making her one of the few blind physical therapists in the United States.
Born with Achromatopsia—a genetic condition that affects the cones of the eyes, making it so she cannot see color, does not have any depth perception, is extremely sensitive to light and has poor distance vision—Chambers did not let being blind prevent her from achieving her goal.
“To me, anything can be accommodated. If I am willing to be flexible and my employer is willing to be flexible, I think I can get anything done,” Chambers said. “My vision has never been an issue that crosses my mind when I have considered my job.”
Having grown up in Rome, Georgia, she graduated from Berry College, also in Rome, in 2020. Moving to Birmingham to attend Samford was the first time she had ever lived away from her family, but she wasn’t alone for her journey—her guide dog, a golden retriever named Jetta, was by her side, accompanying her to every class and clinical.
Chambers was matched with Jetta in 2017 after applying through the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind. Initially she was reluctant to even pursue a guide dog.
“I knew I wanted to go into the healthcare realm, but there is a lot of stigma against disabled healthcare practitioners. Knowing what I wanted for my future, I was hesitant to outwardly identify as a disabled person,” Chambers said. “I am no longer a person in a room. I am now a person with a dog. I didn’t know if I wanted to be identified as a disabled person every time I enter a space?”
Despite her misgivings, she says Jetta has not hindered her independence, but given her the opportunity to do more on her own.
“I think Jetta is a big component in the reason I can be independent and pursue the things I want to pursue. I don’t worry about the navigation part of my life. I don’t have to worry about finding the door to the building or getting into the right Uber or worry about my safety when I am walking down the road and there is an overhanging branch,” Chambers said. “Through my reliance on her, I was able to move to Birmingham on my own and earn my doctorate.”
Chambers says the faculty, staff and students at Samford—particularly in the School of Health Professions—made her, and Jetta, feel right at home from the minute she stepped on campus as a new student. From professors making sure she had accessible resources to her classmates welcoming her like everyone else, she says her experience opened her eyes to how important it is for the world to see that all people can succeed, regardless of one’s ability.
“I was treated just like everyone else. Everyone ignored Jetta when they needed to, and loved on her when they could—always asking for permission first. We were welcomed with open arms among the whole cohort,” Chambers said. “At Samford, I was allowed to fail and be bad at things just like everyone else.”
Because of this, she has found herself advocating for the blind community, sharing her journey—and what it is like to have a guide dog—on social media. Through Chambers’ Instagram account, she promotes inclusivity. Her first post was about her own anxiety from living in a world that is not accessible to everyone. The post was shared thousands of times.
“There are all of these things that we don’t talk about and view as taboo, but I can share my experience to destigmatize these topics and normalize these conversations. It has allowed me to speak about my struggles and the struggles of my community on a platform that can reach a lot of people in a non-confrontational approach,” Chambers explained. “It has allowed people to open their eyes to things that they otherwise wouldn’t have seen.”
Even her classmates have learned from her and say they are better able to communicate with blind patients through using nonvisual cues thanks to what she has shared with them in class and on social media.
“It has been incredibly beautiful to see how a healthcare provider adjusts what they have been taught to communicate and interact with a disabled patient,” Chambers said.
She also advocates about the benefits of having a guide dog through her account as well as a special Instagram account for Jetta.
“I started posting on Jetta’s account to connect with others who have guide dogs and those who raise guide dogs,” Chambers said. “I didn’t expect people outside of the guide dog community to find it that exciting, but I am thrilled that so many are learning through us. My goal is to show you can still do the things you want to accomplish with a guide dog.”
To her professors, Chambers has not only been an excellent student, but has inspired them to use more inclusive strategies while teaching and working with patients.
“Emma inspired me to rethink what inclusion means for individuals desiring to enter the physical therapy profession. One way in which I was inspired was through her desire to transform her disability into an opportunity to advocate for individuals who are blind,” said Andrea Bowens, DPT, Ph.D., associate professor in the School of Health Professions. “I also saw Emma’s tenacity and grit to not let her condition be a barrier for pursuing her professional calling. In turn, I was inspired to try to employ inclusive strategies for diverse learners in my classroom because I wanted to do my part in removing any barriers, large or small, for Emma or others like her.”
During the College of Health Professions commencement ceremony, Chambers was awarded her degree, alongside Jetta who was also recognized for her support, service and attendance. Earning her diploma for her Doctor of Physical Therapy was a full-circle moment for Chambers who says it proves inclusivity and accessibility is possible.
“This diploma is for my family and friends who breathed life into me when I didn’t think I could do this job and felt like the fight was too much. It’s for my professors who believed in me and fought for my access to this space. It’s for my clinical instructors and classmates whose patience and creativity made this profession attainable. It’s for college me who was told I could ‘never work in a medical setting’ and for younger me who so badly wanted to make a difference. It is so much more than a diploma; for me, it represents a hard-fought battle that proves that disabled doesn’t mean unable.”
Chambers will remain in Birmingham, having accepted her first job as a physical therapist with Birmingham Physical Therapy & Sports Medicine, where she will be treating adults.
And while her first priority is working with her patients, she and Jetta plan to continue their work to advocate for a more inclusive and accessible world.
“I am not unique as a disabled person who has earned an advanced degree. It should not be a big deal that someone who is blind is a physical therapist, but because the voices of those with disabilities are often not heard, it seems like a big feat. My goal is to see people with disabilities within every professional sphere, which includes physical therapy,” Chambers said.