Jun 12, 2019 09:00AM
Born in 1867, Roberta Griffith grew up in an era when blindness was associated with impaired mental development and low expectations. Despite all, a visionary, Griffith found her way to the progressive Ohio School for the Blind, where a fuller curriculum allowed her to imagine applying to Western Reserve University. There were no texts in braille or other services to help her, but in 1900 Griffith graduated as the first blind woman in the U.S. to earn a degree from a school for sighted students.
Although she had embarked on a career in journalism, Griffith soon moved to be near her mother in Grand Rapids, where she first worked as a real estate agent and became an advocate for improved care and education for people with vision disabilities. She arranged for braille publications, a typewriter and study room for the blind in the Grand Rapids Public Library; led an effort to establish a statewide employment bureau for blind workers; continued her advocacy through a national foundation for the blind; and traveled and worked with Helen Keller, ten years her junior, to standardize the English braille code and institute national publications programs for the non-sighted.
Back in Michigan she led the fight for state legislation mandating the compulsory use of nitrate of silver as an antiseptic in the eyes of newborns and enabled equitable education opportunities to blind students by creating braille classes in public schools, training braille teachers, and sponsoring a braille club for both students and adult learners. Her crowning glory was publishing a six-volume braille dictionary, the first tool of its kind for the blind.
Never losing her determination to learn, create, and help others, in 1913 Griffith founded the Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Grand Rapids and served as its executive secretary for almost thirty years. Upon her death in 1941, Griffith was hailed as a moving representative of Progressive Era women, like Jane Addams in Chicago.
The Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council is dedicated to educating the community and celebrating the legacies of local women, preserving knowledge of their past and inspiring visions for their future. For more information or to get involved, visit ggrwhc.org