Perkins honors passing of graduate and deafblind icon

Robert Smithdas communicating with his secretary Herbert Lehman via the manual alphabet at the National School for the Blind, Tokyo.

Perkins School for the Blind graduate Dr. Robert J. Smithdas, the renowned author, poet and lecturer and a pillar of the deafblind community, died July 17 at age 89.

July 22, 2014

Perkins School for the Blind graduate Dr. Robert J. Smithdas, the renowned author, poet and lecturer and a pillar of the deafblind community, died July 17 at age 89.

The resident of Port Washington, New York, is remembered as a hardworking advocate who dedicated his life to improving services and opportunities for people who are deafblind.

"Perkins would like to acknowledge the passing of Robert Smithdas, a remarkable man who influenced so many in the deafblind community," said Betsy L. McGinnity, director of the Training and Educational Resources Program at Perkins.

"Robert had a remarkable life as an author, poet and leader and also spent a great deal of time teaching educators and rehabilitation professionals about what it means to be deafblind. Many professionals who work at Perkins benefited from his guidance and insight. We were all better for having known Robert. His legacy is immense."

Born in Pennsylvania, Smithdas lost his vision and nearly all of his hearing at age 4 after contracting cerebrospinal meningitis. He began attending Perkins School for the Blind in 1942 at age 16 and went on to be a successful student and standout member of the wrestling team. He graduated in 1945 as just the fifth student who is deafblind to receive a Perkins diploma.

A 1950 graduate of St. John's University, Smithdas was the first man who is deafblind to receive a college degree, following in the footsteps of fellow Perkins student Helen Keller, who graduated from Radcliffe College some 50 years before. Smithdas also became the first person who is deafblind to receive a master's degree when he graduated from New York University in 1953.

In the 1960s, Smithdas worked with Keller to persuade Congress to create and fund the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults (HKNC). A longtime HKNC employee, Smithdas served as the organization's director of community education before retiring in 2008.

Smithdas' 65-year career also included stints working on behalf of the Industrial Home for the Blind (IHB), the American Association of the Deaf-Blind and the World Blind Union.

Smithdas published an autobiography, Life at My Fingertips, along with several poetry collections. He was honored as Poet of the Year for 1960-61 by the Poetry Society of America. In 1965, the President's Committee on Employment of People Who Are Disabled named him "Handicapped American of the Year."

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