Women’s History Month recognizes the vital role women have played and continue to play in American history and society. For hundreds of years, women – have made important contributions to our country, including enhancing the lives of people who are blind.
Many people don’t know that Harriet Tubman, the well-known African American abolitionist, humanitarian, and spy for the Union during the American Civil War, was visually impaired. Tubman suffered serious eye damage at age 13, but despite her visual impairment, escorted more than 300 people to freedom through the Underground Railroad, a network composed of abolitionists and other activists that offered shelter and aid to people escaping slavery. Tubman will be featured on the new $20 bill, one of the first pieces of U.S. currency to have markers to aid people who are blind or visually impaired in identifying the bill’s denomination.
When she met Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller, who was both blind and deaf, was a willful and ill-tempered six-year-old girl with no means of contact with the outer world but touch. Sullivan, the teacher who opened up Keller’s world, had a severe visual impairment of her own, graduating from the Perkins School for the Blind after her mother died and her father abandoned his three children. Sullivan’s patience and creativity in using a manual alphabet to teach Keller that things had names unleashed the incredible intellect of the world-renowned humanitarian. Keller and Sullivan worked together until Sullivan’s death in 1936.
Georgia Duckworth Trader, who lost her eyesight at age 11, and her sister Florence Bishop Trader, had a profound impact on the lives of people who are blind in their native Ohio and across the country. The sisters taught braille classes at the Cincinnati Public Library and established the Cincinnati Library Society for the Blind in 1901. In 1903 they opened the Clovernook Home for the Blind, today known as NIB associated nonprofit agency Clovernook Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and soon set up weaving and braille printing programs for vocational training. As a result of the Trader sisters’ work, in 1905 the Cincinnati public schools added provisions for students who were blind and for vision screening. Today, Clovernook Braille Press is one of the country’s largest braille presses.
One of the most important women in NIB’s history was not blind, but believed in the potential of all people, regardless of disability. Representative Caroline O’Day, who served in the House of Representatives from 1935-1943, sponsored and championed the Wagner-O’Day Act that led to the establishment of NIB. O’Day worked tirelessly to improve the lives of all, and the Wagner-O’Day Act, passed in 1938, demonstrates the impact of her work on Americans who are blind. With the country still feeling the effects of the Great Depression, O’Day’s efforts built on the momentum of the New Deal to provide opportunities for some of the Americans hardest hit. The Wagner-O’Day Act exemplified her belief that individuals and groups should not be viewed in terms of disabilities and shortcomings, but their abilities and potential. Today, the government program started under the Wagner-O’Day Act is known as the AbilityOne® Program and provides employment for people who are blind, who produce quality SKILCRAFT products and services for the federal government.
As Women’s History Month draws to a close, NIB salutes not only these history makers, but the many women in NIB associated nonprofit agencies, government, and the private sector, whose work helps make our country what it is today.