Embracing the past, changing the future

Historian Don Deignan has dedicated his life to commemorating Irish history and advocating for disability rights

Perkins alum Don Deignan uses his wheelchair at the Rhode Island Famine Memorial, which is surrounded by green trees.

Perkins alum Don Deignan has worked on the memorial in Providence for the last two decades.

Perspectives Issue:
Fall 2016

As Don Deignan wheels himself around the quiet paths of the Rhode Island Irish Famine Memorial on the banks of the Providence River, just steps from the hustle and bustle of College Hill, he smiles with satisfaction as visitors stop and read his words that narrate the trials of his ancestors.

The historian, former state government official and disability rights advocate has spent the last two decades commemorating key events in Irish and Irish-American history. He not only helped raise a half-million dollars to build the memorial that was dedicated in 2007, but also welcomed the Irish prime minister for a visit in 2014. In April 2016, he updated the monument with a new plaque to honor the 100th anniversary of the Irish rebellion against British rule.

“I’m a proud Irish American,” he said, a heritage he shares with nearly one in five residents of his home state of Rhode Island. “The study of Irish history has always been a primary interest of mine, starting at Perkins, where I wrote my senior essay on the Easter Rising.”

When Deignan, class of ’68, first arrived at Perkins School for the Blind as a second grader, however, he was a long way from writing narratives that would be sculpted for perpetuity. He was illiterate after spending his first two years in public schools in Barrington, Rhode Island.

“My parents were ahead of their time in terms of believing in mainstreaming for kids with physical disabilities, but the schools had no resources to deal with me,” he said. Deignan has both cerebral palsy, which impairs motor function, and retrolental fibroplasia, which puts him “on the cusp between visual impairment and legal blindness.”

But he persevered at Perkins, and today, he reads and writes both braille and print. He credits Perkins’ massive library, where he devoured historical novels, and the support of teachers Calvin Kennard and Norman LeBlanc for sparking his lifelong interest in history.

Growing up in an academic household, he knew he wanted to pursue higher education. He attended Rhode Island College and then went on to Brown University, where he earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in history. Because this was years before the Americans with Disabilities Act became law, he had to make all his own accessibility arrangements. He brought his own tape recorder to class and transcribed his notes in braille. Thanks to Perkins, he could type his own papers.

During that same time he was selected as a delegate to the 1977 White House Conference on Handicapped Individuals. There, he met his future wife, Kathy Leonard, whom he married in 2000. He then embarked on a decades-long quest with a new generation of disability advocates to fight for voting accessibility and educational equality across the United States.

“People as blessed as I have been have an obligation to make life easier for those coming after me who are disabled,” said Deignan. He hopes young people with disabilities will have the same opportunities to find fulfilling careers like his, teaching at Rhode Island College and working in state government for the Attorney General and Secretary of State.

Retirement in 2000 might have meant the end of his 9-to-5 grind, but Deignan hasn’t spent his time “sitting at home in a rocking chair,” he said.

He is working to create an endowment for the famine memorial and writing a book about his own family history that will be released through Amazon Publishing this fall, entitled “The Shadow of Sacrifice: The True Story of a Pearl Harbor Survivor and His Nephew Namesake.” He also remains active in local, state and national advocacy organizations, including serving on the Governor’s Advisory Council for the Blind and Visually Impaired for the 28th year.

“I would say my life and the life of people with disabilities in the United States has improved tremendously since I was a child, though it’s not easy and it never will be,” said Deignan. “I’ve tried to give back, because I’m so grateful for the opportunities I’ve had personally.”