Everyone knows Stevie Wonder and the late Ray Charles: exceptionally gifted, groundbreaking musicians who also happen to be both Black and blind. But many other Black Americans have shared their talents with the world – or are still doing so – often working to advance the field of blindness and create a more inclusive society.
The Black History Month 2021 theme is “Black Family: Representation, Identity and Diversity” and explores the African diaspora, and the spread of Black families across the United States.
Bringing Education to Black Children Who Are Blind
Not all of these Black Americans have been blind, but they have eased the way for those who are. One of these leaders is Dr. Laurence C. Jones, who founded the Piney Woods School in 1909, in a rural area just south of Jackson, Mississippi. This educator’s mission was to offer academic and vocational agricultural schooling for Black children and grandchildren of slaves who were living in poverty. But in 1920, Dr. Jones realized there was another unmet need, the education of black children who are blind, and added that to the school’s mission. The author of many books, Dr. Jones invited teachers, both Black and White, from around the country to learn his teaching methods for the blind – along with those of one of his colleagues.
Martha Louise Morrow Fox
In 1929, Martha Louise Morrow Foxx began her tenure as the primary teacher of the children with vision loss at Piney Woods School, a position she held until 1942 when she became the school’s principal. In 1950, the Piney Woods School received state funding and became a sister school of the Jackson-based Mississippi School for the Blind, where Foxx served as principal until her retirement in 1969.
Nearly blind from infancy, Foxx earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and was widely recognized for a teaching style that was far ahead of its time. She used a hands-on approach with an emphasis on braille and large-print reading, independent living and vocational training, all of which are now part of today’s Expanded Core Curriculum (ECC).
Foxx also didn’t limit students to the classroom but took them for field trips in the woods near the school to sharpen their other senses. She taught her methods to teachers nationwide, and the “White” school for the blind began using her curriculum in the late 1940s.
Both educators were Inducted into the APH’s Hall of Fame for Leaders and Legends of the Blindness Field in 2013.
Developing Sight-saving Technology and Breaking Barriers for Black Women
Dr. Patricia Bath not only cared for people’s eyesight – she developed technology to help prevent vision loss or blindness caused by cataracts. The first Black person to complete a residency in ophthalmology in 1973, Dr. Bath also became the first female faculty member in the Department of Ophthalmology at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute just two years later.
Early in her career, Dr. Bath documented that blindness was twice as likely in Black people as it was in White people. From that point forward, she worked to make sure that underserved communities had the same access to quality vision care as everyone else. The National Eye Institute has documented that “African Americans are at higher risk for some eye diseases, including cataract, glaucoma, and diabetic retinopathy. Many of these diseases don’t have symptoms at first, and can cause vision loss or blindness if they’re not treated. African Americans have some of the highest rates of vision loss and blindness caused by eye disease — and these rates are getting higher.”
Dr. Bath co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness in 1976, and 10 years later she invented the Laserphaco Probe, a laser technology that helps improve or restore sight to patients with cataracts. In 1988, when she patented the device, Dr. Bath became the first Black woman doctor to secure a medical patent.
Advocating for the Rights of People with Disabilities
Some Black leaders who are blind aren’t historical figures. They’re still making history today. Haben Girma is a human rights lawyer who advances disability justice, and is the first deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School. Girma believes that disability is an opportunity for innovation – which any person who is visually impaired or deafblind knows from experience: It often means being creative about finding ways to achieve your goals. Girma’s tireless advocacy for equal opportunities for people with disabilities includes traveling around the world to educate people and organizations on the value of inclusion, not just for people with disabilities but for everyone.
Girma’s memoir, Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law, was featured in the New York Times and on the TODAY Show, and she has earned honors from world leaders including President Bill Clinton, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. President Barack Obama named her a White House Champion of Change and the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) honored her with a Helen Keller Achievement Award.