Robert Smithdas (1925-2014) was an advocate for the education and employment of people who are deafblind, as well as an author, poet, and teacher. Smithdas served as Director of Services for the Deaf-Blind at the Industrial Home for the Blind (IHB) in New York City for 9 years and was co-founder of the Helen Keller National Center for DeafBlind Youths & Adults, where he served as Director of Community Education for 39 years. He was also deafblind. The many accomplishments of Smithdas serve as examples of what people with deafblindness are capable of and he leveraged these accomplishments to advocate for equal opportunity. He was also a graduate of the Perkins School for the Blind.
Robert Smithdas was born on June 7, 1925, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At 5 years old he contracted spinal meningitis and subsequently lost his sight and much of his hearing. He attended Western Pennsylvania School for the Blind, but because of his deteriorating hearing, he transferred to the Perkins School for the Blind in February of 1942. Smithdas was 16 years old at the time.
At Perkins Smithdas was provided with individual instruction, something he believed to be integral to students who were deafblind and credited with regaining his confidence (Smithdas, 60). He also had a tutor named Joe Jablonske, a student at Perkins who helped him get oriented to life at the school. Smithdas was taught how to sign manually in Pennsylvania but learned the Tadoma method of reading lips at Perkins. Sometimes referred to as tactile lip-reading, the person who is deafblind places their hand on the speaker’s jaw and lips, while also feeling the vibration of the vocal cords (“The evolution”).
Early on, Smithdas became close friends with another student who was deafblind, Leonard Dowdy. When they weren’t in close enough proximity to communicate, Smithdas remembered that, “Leonard and I sat opposite one another at meals and we devised a method for communication by tapping our feet in Morse code. The continual stamping caused annoyance to the matron who served the meals and to the other students, but it in no way dampened our enthusiasm” (Smithdas, 66). Smithdas would eventually get comfortable enough to “mingle” with students who were blind. “In some cases, I was able to read their lips; in others, they learned to speak the manual alphabet” (Smithdas, 69).
The faculty observed that Smithdas displayed “unusual manual dexterity” and an extraordinary retentive memory (Cronkite, 16). After seeing only one demonstration Smithdas was able to disassemble and reassemble a car engine in 20 minutes on a dare (Cronkite, 16). His favorite teacher David Abraham, who taught him, mechanics, paid him 25 cents on that dare (Smithdas, 62). It was Smithdas’ English teacher, Alice Carpenter, that helped develop an interest in poetry, and he continued a friendship with her after he graduated.
Smithdas worked hard to make the wrestling team which competed against schools for the blind as well as schools with sighted students. He had to convince the head of the Deafblind Department and the coach but his persistence paid off. He made the team and would compete. The referee would tap him once on the shoulder to begin and tap him twice to stop. He recalled that one particular win against a sighted opponent brought him “prestige” on the Perkins campus and “hero worship” among the younger boys (Smithdas, 79).
After graduating from Perkins in 1945, Smithdas was accepted for training in the Industrial House for the Blind (IHB) workshop. IHB offered him a fellowship to attend St. John’s University in New York (“Founding Fathers”). In an excerpt of a letter published in the March 1949 issue of The Lantern, Smithdas described college as, “an adventure for me” (“Deaf-blind”, 6). With accommodations that included lectures that were spelled out manually by a sighted companion and books in braille, Smithdas received a bachelor of arts degree, with cum laude honors in 1950 (Cronkite, 17). Smithdas then went on to New York University, where his focus of study was Vocational Rehabilitation of the Handicapped. He earned a master’s degree there while also becoming the first person who was deafblind to earn an advanced degree.
Robert was subsequently employed by IHB in the agency’s Community Relations Department from 1950-1960 before becoming IHB’s Associate Director of Services for the Deaf-Blind (“Founding Fathers”). In this role he counseled clients who were deafblind providing vocational guidance and rehabilitation services. He also advocated on behalf of people with deafblindness which resulted in Anne Sullivan Macy Services (ASMS), which proved that given training, people with deafblindness could work and live independently. This subsequently led to the establishment of the Helen Keller National Center for DeafBlind Youths & Adults which he co-founded in 1967. The center was established by an act of Congress and his advocacy helped pave the way for legislation that made training deafblind citizens a federal mandate. At the Center, Smithdas served as Director of Community Education where his advocacy spanned the globe.
As part of his advocacy, he did many interviews throughout his life. It was an interview in 1967 that Barbara Walters considered her most memorable. Learning this, Smithdas invited her to interview him and his wife in 1998, which she did. The interview part one and interview part two are close-captioned and available on YouTube.
After leaving Perkins, Smithdas still remained in touch and in partnership with the school. In 1965 he became a member of the Perkins Board of Trustees. In 1966, the same year as the Anne Sullivan Centennial, he was the commencement speaker for Perkins’ graduation. At an Anne Sullivan Centennial Event, he was awarded an inaugural Anne Sullivan Medal (Report, 1942). The following year Smithdas was part of a team from Perkins that visited Japan in November 1967 at the invitation of the Minister of Education over a growing concern for deafblind children in that country (Campbell, 14).
Throughout his life, he received many honors including 4 honorary doctoral degrees, the M.C. Migel Medal from American Printing House for the Blind, the Anne Sullivan Medal from Perkins, and was inducted into the National Hall of Fame for Persons with Disabilities in 1988. In 1965 Smithdas was named “Handicapped Person of the Year,” by the President’s Committee on the Employment of the Handicapped. At this ceremony, acclaimed journalist Walter Cronkite gave a tribute to Smithdas and his work. This tribute was published in the 1965 issue of The Lantern (available on Internet Archive). He was also honored for his poetry and was named Poet of the Year by the Poetry Society of America for the year 1960-61.
Robert Smithdas passed away in 2014 at the age of 89. That same year the Helen Keller National Center for DeafBlind Youths & Adults established the Dr. Robert J. Smithdas Award in his memory (Helen Keller Services, 2014). Through his advocacy and by his example, Smithdas helped change federal law and public perception of what people with deaflbindness are capable of. He was survived by his wife Michelle who was also deafblind. That same year the Helen Keller National Center for DeafBlind Youths & Adults established the Dr. Robert J. Smithdas Award in his memory (Helen Keller Services, 2014). Through his advocacy and by his example, Smithdas helped change federal law and public perception of what people with deaflbindness are capable of.
Hale, Jen. “Dr. Robert Smithdas redefined deafblindness” Perkins Archives Blog, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown MA, October 29, 2021.