We honor here members, friends and supporters of the American Council of the Blind who have impacted our lives in many wonderful ways. If you would like to submit a notice for this column, please include as much of the following information as possible.
Name (first, last, maiden if appropriate)
City of residence (upon passing)
State/province of residence (upon passing)
Other cities/states/countries of residence (places where other blind people may have known this person)
Date of death (day if known, month, year)
ACB affiliation (local/state/special-interest affiliates or national committees)
Deaths that occurred more than six months ago cannot be reported in this column.
Dr. Robert J. Smithdas
Dr. Robert J. Smithdas passed away on July 17, 2014 at the age of 89. He was an author, lecturer and poet who lost his vision and hearing as a result of cerebrospinal meningitis at the age of four and a half. He began his formal schooling at Western Pennsylvania School for the Blind and later, after losing all of his hearing, he moved to Perkins School for the Blind, where he graduated in 1945. He received a bachelor of arts degree, cum laude, from St. John's University in 1950 and went on to New York University and achieved the distinction of being the first person with deaf-blindness ever to earn a master's degree.
Dr. Smithdas was also the recipient of four honorary degrees: Doctor of Letters from Gallaudet University, Washington, D.C.; Doctor of Humanities from Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Mich.; Doctor of Humane Letters from his alma mater, St. John’s University; Doctor of Humane Letters, Mount Aloysius College, Cresson, Pa.
He was employed by IHB and worked in the agency’s Community Relations Department from 1950 to 1960. From 1960 to 1969 he was associate director of Services for the Deaf-Blind, in charge of overall client welfare. In 1962 he was engaged in a research and demonstration project, conducted by IHB. He was responsible for providing rehabilitative counseling and consultation services in addition to his major activities in community relations. Later, with Helen Keller and Peter Salmon, he played a vital role in the development of legislation which was enacted as part of the 1967 Amendments to the Vocational Rehabilitation Act, and which authorized the establishment of the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults (HKNC).
In 1960, he was elected to membership in the Poetry Society of America and was honored as Poet of the Year for 1960-61. In 1965, he was named “Handicapped American of the Year” by the President’s Committee on Employment of People Who Are Disabled. His awards included the Golden Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement, recognition from the New York State Speech and Hearing Association for outstanding contributions in the rehabilitation of the handicapped, the Alice Cogswell Award from Gallaudet University in 1981 for valuable service on behalf of people who are deaf, and was chosen as the Nassau County “Disabled Artist of the Year” in April 1983. He received the “Medal of Excellence” from the New York State Board of Regents in July 1984, and served as Chairman, Legislation and Advocacy Committee, Nassau County Community Advocacy Panel from 1982-84. The Long Island Association (LIA) selected Dr. Smithdas as the recipient of the 1985 Harry Chapin “Humanitarian Award for Community Service,” and in 1988, he was inducted into the National Hall of Fame for Persons with Disabilities. In November 1995, Dr. Smithdas received the Migel Medal for professional achievement from the American Foundation for the Blind in New York, and the Peter J. Salmon Memorial Award from AADB for life-long service to deaf-blind communities around the world in 1998.
In addition to his autobiography, he was the author of several collections of poems, including “City of the Heart,” published by Taplinger Press in 1966, and “Shared Beauty,” in 1983.
Dr. Smithdas and his wife Michelle (who is also deaf-blind) made their home in Port Washington, N.Y., and were featured in an interview with Barbara Walters on 20/20 in October 1998 (re-broadcast in May 1999).
Perhaps his personal philosophy is best summed up by a line from one of his poems, “Shared Beauty”: “I call it Life, and laugh with its delight, Though life itself be out of sound and sight.”
A memorial scholarship fund for HKNC students has been created in Dr. Smithdas’ memory. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that you send any donations to: Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths & Adults, c/o Marina Carroll, 141 Middle Neck Rd., Sands Point, NY 11050, or e-mail[email protected].
HKNC will also be compiling memories of Dr. Smithdas. If you have any photos or stories you would like to share, please send them to Allison Burrows at[email protected].