Leader and deafblind advocate Robert J. Smithdas has died
Robert J. Smithdas, one of the founders of and former director for the Sands Point, New York–based Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults (HKNC), died July 17, 2014, aged 89. Born June 7, 1925, in Brentwood, Pennsylvania, Dr. Smithdas contracted cerebrospinal meningitis at age 4 and lost his vision and hearing. He was educated at Western Pennsylvania School for the Blind, in Pittsburgh, and Perkins School for the Blind, near Boston. Assisted by individualized instruction and speech therapy, Dr. Smithdas thrived in scholastics and, after graduating in 1945, he was accepted to the Industrial Home for the Blind and earned a fellowship to St. John's University in New York. He graduated with honors in 1950 and later attended New York University, where he became the first deafblind individual to earn a master's degree. Dr. Smithdas also earned honorary doctoral degrees from Gallaudet University, Western Michigan University, Mount Aloysius College, and St. John's University. He was employed by the Industrial Home for the Blind and worked in the agency's Community Relations Department from 1950 to 1960. From 1960 to 1969, he was associate director of services for deafblind people, in charge of overall client welfare. With the goal of establishing a national center for people with deafblindness, Mr. Smithdas joined forces with Helen Keller and Peter J. Salmon (the former executive director of the Industrial Home for the Blind), to develop legislation that was enacted as part of the 1967 Amendments to the Vocational Rehabilitation Act. This act authorized the establishment of HKNC, where Dr. Smithdas worked as director of community education. After retiring from HKNC on December 31, 2008, Dr. Smithdas was honored in the House of Representatives on January 14, 2009, by the Hon. Gary L. Ackerman of New York, who said:
Dr. Smithdas' impact on the lives of the deaf-blind—both those he has met and those who have just benefitted from his good works—is truly immeasurable. And those who have had the privilege to read his works, attend his lectures, and take advantage of the programs he developed know that he is a truly exceptional American.
Dr. Smithdas was honored for his achievements in his lifetime. In 1965, he was named Handicapped American of the Year by President Lyndon B. Johnson's Committee on Employment of People Who Are Disabled. In addition, he received the Alice Cogswell Award from Gallaudet University in 1981 for valuable service on behalf of people who are deaf; he was inducted into the National Hall of Fame for Persons with Disabilities in 1988; he received the 1995 Migel Medal, the highest honor in the blindness field, for professional achievement from the American Foundation for the Blind; and the 1998 Peter J. Salmon Memorial Award from the American Association of the Deaf-Blind (AADB) for lifelong service to deafblind communities around the world. In June 2014, HKNC announced its inaugural Dr. Robert J. Smithdas Awards, which were given to Congressmen Kevin Yoder (Republican, Kansas), Mark Takano (Democrat, California), and Steve Israel (D-NY).
In addition to his passion for service to and advocacy people who are deafblind, Dr. Smithdas also had a love for the written word. 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 addition to his autobiography, he was the author of several collections of poems. In one of his poems, "Shared Beauty," he wrote:
I call it Life,
and laugh with its delight,
Though life itself be out of sound and sight.
For more information, contact: Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youth and Adults, 141 Middle Neck Road, Sands Point, NY 11050; website: www.hknc.org. [Information for this piece comes from the July 23, 2014, Newsday article, "Robert J. Smithdas, advocate for the deaf-blind, dies," by Laura Figueroa.]