Robert J. Smithdas, advocate for the deaf-blind, dies

Robert Smithdas, head of Helen Keller center Robert

Robert Smithdas, head of Helen Keller center Robert J. Smithdas, former Director of Community Education for Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults, has died at age 89. He and his wife, who also was deaf-blind, lived in Port Washington. (Credit: Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults)

Robert J. Smithdas, whose life work advocating on behalf of the deaf and blind was honored by U.S. presidents and nonprofits alike, died last Thursday at age 89.

Smithdas, of Port Washington, served as director of Community Education for the Sands Point-based Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults.

Officials at the center said Smithdas -- who lost his vision and nearly all of his hearing after contracting cerebrospinal meningitis at age 4 -- was pivotal in getting Congress to authorize creation of the center in 1967.

He worked with the center, a nonprofit that receives funding from the U.S. Department of Education through the Helen Keller Act of 1967, from its opening in 1969 until his retirement in 2009, officials said.

"He's one of the reasons the Helen Keller National Center exists," said Allison Burrows, the center's coordinator of information services, who also served as Smithdas' assistant and interpreter for 26 years.

"As a deaf-blind person he realized there was a definite need for specialized training," Burrows said. "Along with others he went to Washington, D.C., to fight for the establishment of a training center to meet the needs of those with combined hearing and vision loss."

In 1965, Smithdas was named "Handicapped American of the Year" by President Lyndon B. Johnson's Committee on Employment of People Who are Disabled; in 1990, he was a guest at the White House when President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law, Burrows said.

Smithdas was born June 7, 1925, in Brentwood, Pennsylvania and attended the Western Pennsylvania School for the Blind and the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts. He graduated with honors from St. John's University in Queens in 1950, and in 1953 he earned a master's degree from New York University in vocational guidance and rehabilitation of individuals with disabilities.

Smithdas also was an author and poet. He was named Poet of the Year in 1961 by the Poetry Society of America, and his published works included two collections of poetry: City of Heart (1966) and Shared Beauty (1983).

Colleagues at the center said Smithdas' life philosophy is captured by a line in Shared Beauty: "I call it Life, and laugh with its delight, Though life itself be out of sound and sight."

Smithdas is survived by his wife, Michelle, who is also deaf and blind and whom he met at the center.

The couple, who had retired to Fort Collins, Colorado, was interviewed by Barbara Walters in October 1998 on the news program 20/20.

A memorial scholarship fund has been established in Smithdas' memory, to assist those who are unable to afford the cost of attending the center. In lieu of flowers, donations can be sent to Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youth and Adults, 141 Middle Neck Rd., Sands Point, NY 11050 or for more information email marina.carroll@hknc.org.

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