IN TOUCH WITH EACH OTHER / BOB AND MICHELLE SMITHDAS, BOTH BLIND AND DEAF, LEAD LIVES FULL OF LOVE, WORK, HOBBIES AND HUMOR
I only know that when I touch a flower,
or feel the sun and wind upon my face,
or hold your hand in mine, there is a brightness
within my soul that words can never trace.
I call it Life, and laugh with its delight,
though life itself be out of sound and sight.
THE WORDS are from "Shared Beauty," a poem written by Robert J. Smithdas
and dedicated to his wife, Michelle Joanne Smithdas. The Smithdases are both
deaf-blind. They have never seen one another, nor had either heard the other's
voice until 1993, when Michelle underwent a cochlear implant and now is able to
hear some sound.
To say the couple is extraordinary is to say the sky is little more than a
backdrop for the sun, the stars and the moon.
He is an author, poet, lecturer, teacher, advocate for the deaf-blind,
deep-sea fisherman, gardener, art collector and gourmet cook ... for starters.
She is a teacher, writer, advocate for the deaf-blind, lecturer, exercise
buff and cake baker.
Both hold bachelor's and master's degrees. Both are recipients of honorary
doctorates and numerous awards for their work in the training and
rehabilitation of the deaf-blind.
Bob Smithdas is the director of community education at the Helen Keller
National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults in Sands Point. As part of his
mission to raise community awareness of what the deaf-blind can do when given
the proper opportunities, he gives lectures, arranges tours of the center and
edits a national newsletter. Michelle Smithdas is an instructor at the center;
she teaches deaf-blind Braille, vocabulary, sign language and other
communications skills. She is writing an instructional Braille book for the
deaf-blind, because most Braille books are geared to the blind only.
The couple lives a relatively self-sufficient life at their Port Washington
home. They travel extensively and enjoy a social circle that includes not only
the deaf-blind, but sighted and hearing friends as well.
Their mission is to teach the deaf-blind to live and work to the best of
their capabilities and as independently as possible, and the way in which they
have overcome adversity in their own lives is the best lesson they can offer.
The fact that both have but three of the five senses that most of us take for
granted each day is a remarkable testament to the resilience of the human
When I was a child, I used to stand
with a broken mirror in my hand
watching my laughing image pass
in and out of the shining glass.
If I could hold it here once more
and look into it as before,
I wonder if I still would see
a faint resemblance of Me?
- from "Mirror," by Robert J. Smithdas
Bob Smithdas, 76, was born near Pittsburgh. When asked his age, he
responded with his signature dry wit.
"I usually say I'm 1,000 years old. It seems to please people."
He lost his vision and most of his hearing at the age of 4, when he
contracted cerebrospinal meningitis; his hearing regressed to the point that he
was totally deaf by his mid-teens.
"Unable to hear the sound of my own voice, I gradually lost my feeling for
the pitch and stresses that give speech its human character," he wrote in his
1958 autobiography, "Life at My Fingertips." Any difficulties with speech have
never been a deterrent to his amazing success. He articulates each word
precisely and lectures extensively before audiences nationwide.
Bob Smithdas learned Braille and by his teens was an avid reader who
"finished three or four books in a weekend." At 12, he began to write "not very
good poetry, just rhymes," he said. He is a member of the Poetry Society of
America, and was honored as their poet of the year in 1960. He learned to
communicate through POP, the print on palm method of printing block letters on
the palm of the hand. He is one of few deaf-blind persons skilled in the use of
Tadoma, which enables him to place his right thumb on the lips of the speaker
and his fingers over the vocal chords to interpret what is being said.
With the assistance of sighted, hearing friends who attended class with him
and transcribed all his textbooks into Braille, Smithdas graduated cum laude
from St. John's University in 1950. He was the first deaf-blind person to earn
a college degree after Helen Keller. In 1953, he became the first deaf-blind
person ever to earn a master's degree, which he completed at New York
University in the field of vocational guidance and rehabilitation of the
Michelle Smithdas was born in California. She was born with limited hearing
and was profoundly deaf by the age of 16. During the midwinter holiday of her
senior year at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the world's only
university for the deaf, Michelle suffered a snowmobile accident, which
resulted in head injuries and her loss of vision.
"It was devastating at that time and at that age," she said.
Despite the tragic turn in her life, she completed her bachelor's degree.
(Some years later, she became the first deaf-blind person to receive a master's
degree at an Ivy League university, earning a master's in education of blind
and visually impaired at Columbia.) In 1972, she entered the training program
at the Helen Keller National Center on Long Island, where Bob Smithdas was
already the director of community education.
Oh, when I reach to take you by the hand,
it is because I need to understand
that I am not alone in this broad land.
- from "Touch," by Robert J. Smithdas
"On my first day, I met Bob in the dark hallway. Most say love at first
sight, but for us it was love at first bump in the dark. He was so good to make
sure I did not fall down," Michelle Smithdas said. The couple was married on
Dec. 13, 1975.
"I would say my husband is very handsome. He is very strong and very
intelligent. I am not totally blind," she added, " so I can sometimes catch
parts of him with my little bit of vision. I put the parts together like a
"I cannot describe my wife on a visual basis," Bob Smithdas said. "But she
is very sweet, a lot of fun. She is petite and delicate and when she laughs she
has a big smile. I go by my feelings, and they are strong for Michelle."
The couple communicates by finger spelling their words, letter by letter,
in the palm of the other's hand.
They delight in one another as if they were newlyweds. She often defers to
"It's very important that you listen to Bob," she said.
"Now you realize that she is a good wife," he said.
The couple has no children.
"No," Michelle Smithdas, 53, said. "Bob is enough. He is a big child."
Who does the cooking?
"Bob cooks most of the time. He loves it and he is an excellent cook," she
"Yes, I must be good. No one has died from my cooking," he said. A
Polynesian chicken dish is his favorite. He also enjoys cooking Italian, Czech,
Chinese and German foods.
"I could write a cookbook, I guess," he acknowledged.
Friends and neighbors assist with food shopping and transportation.
"I take them to the doctor," said Lynn Dallesandro, who stopped by to
visit. She first met the Smithdases when she worked as a volunteer at the Helen
Keller center in 1976. She is a nurse and able to explain things to the couple
during doctor's visits.
"We've become very good friends; they are awesome," said Dallesandro, who
learned to finger spell in order to communicate with them.
Her communication skills served well last year when Bob Smithdas underwent
quadruple coronary bypass surgery. It has not slowed him down.
"Bob is an ox," said Joseph McNulty, executive director of the center. "The
other day, there was a freezer delivered to their house. Because the
deliveryman couldn't communicate with Bob, he left the freezer in the garage.
Bob went back there and moved the thing into the house by himself."
Bob Smithdas was a wrestler in college. He now enjoys swimming and walking.
"And I squeeze Michelle for exercise," he joked. He also does a lot of
bending in the garden.
"That reminds me, I have 50 bulbs to plant," he said.
His other interests include tinkering with old cars, the stock market and
deep sea fishing. He recalls with fondness the 90-pound tuna he caught years
Michelle Smithdas is an exercise enthusiast. She keeps a rowing machine and
a stationary bike at home and watches her weight on a Braille scale.
The house in which the Smithdases have lived for 24 years is replete with
computer technology. Their telephone takes typewritten input and provides
Braille output, as does Michelle's computer. The couple wears pagers, which
vibrate differently for the telephone, the doorbell or when one asks the other,
"Where are you?" The stove and microwave have raised buttons to indicate
temperature settings. Bob carries a sensor that vibrates to indicate an object
ahead. They have vibrating sensors to indicate if the lights are on, to tell
when to stop pouring liquid into a cup, and to recognize the denomination of
bills. As part of Bob Smithdas' job at the center, he makes devices like these
accessible to clients. He loves tinkering with gadgets, and is constantly
working to improve on them.
Perhaps the most dramatic technological change in the couple's lives has
been the cochlear implant that Michelle Smithdas underwent in 1993. The device
communicates some sound to the brain through electrodes in the middle ear.
"When I decided to try it, there was controversy between the deaf culture
people and those going for the cochlear implants," she explained. "I was afraid
some of those in the deaf culture would not continue to be my friends. Some
people say you should accept what you were given by God, but I feel God wants
an individual to use the advances in technology. Being a deaf-blind person can
be quite isolating. You can only imagine what it is like to be sitting in a
room, not seeing anybody, nobody stopping by and nobody calling on the
telephone. So I decided to give it a try ... and it is wonderful."
While supportive of his wife's decision to undergo the procedure, Bob
Smithdas has never taken tests to determine if he could be similarly helped.
"No, I was pretty well seasoned in my own way of life. I didn't see the
urgency in the cochlear implant," he said.
Always the small beginnings of great things:
always the pioneer who breaks the trail
across uncharted reaches of the mind
or through a trackless wilderness unknown.
- from "Helen Keller's Legacy"
by Robert J. Smithdas
An acquaintance of the Smithdases wrote a movie script some time ago that
features the couple's lives and work and the level of achievement the deaf-
blind can reach. Bob Smithdas hopes the money needed to produce the film can be
"They've produced 'The Miracle Worker' over and over again. But, it's not
telling the story of how the deaf-blind succeed today. It's important to know
how we live in a modern environment. We feel blocked by the shadow of Helen
Keller," he said.
"Many deaf-blind have gone on to college. They are teachers, computer
programmers and other types of specialists. A friend of mine is a mathematical
whiz and owns his own computer business."
According to McNulty, the Helen Keller National Center is unique in this
country. It focuses on clients' abilities rather than on the fact that they are
deaf and blind.
There are usually 40 students at a time; their length of stay usually
ranges between several months and a year depending on their particular needs.
There has not been a nationwide count of deaf- blind persons since the
1970s, when it was between 50,000 and 70,000 individuals.
"And that was well before the graying of America," said McNulty. "We are
trying to develop a national registry."
The Helen Keller center exists in large part because Bob Smithdas went to
Washington, D.C., in 1967 and helped obtain federal funds. He testified that
without sight or hearing a person could still achieve great heights ... he
served as the perfect example. A temporary facility was opened in New Hyde Park
At a gala fund-raiser tomorrow, Bob Smithdas will be presented with a
lifetime achievement award. The event will mark the 25th anniversary of the
opening of the Helen Keller National Center at its current site in Sands Point.
The presenter will be Barbara Walters, who first interviewed Bob Smithdas more
than 25 years ago and describes him as "the most memorable person I have ever
interviewed." Walters interviewed the couple together in 1998.
In the November 2001 issue of Ladies Home Journal, Walters named Michelle
Smithdas as "the most empowering woman" she's ever met.
"I never knew I was married to such a powerful woman," Bob Smithdas said,
laughing, as he offered his arm to Michelle and the couple walked out together
into the radiant glow of a warm, autumn afternoon. They couldn't see it, but,
no matter, they seemed to have eyes only for each other.
Ellen Mitchell is a freelance writer. She wishes to acknowledge the kind
assistance of Sue Ruzenski, director of the direct service program at the Helen
Keller center, and John Mascia, director of field services, for their