An Interview with Acting Dean Robert Greenberg, Hunter College
Dr. Robert Greenberg is Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Hunter College. He is one of the most unusual deans in the nation. At the age of 13, he suffered retinitis pigmentosa, which rendered him legally blind. By the time he got to college, he couldn’t read very well and in graduate school he needed to get readers. Nevertheless, he got a Fulbright Scholarship, studied in Yugoslavia, majored in Slavic languages, and ultimately obtained a Ph.D. from Yale University. His life is a triumph of the human spirit.
Dr. Robert Greenberg (RG): I was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa when I was 13. The first symptom is night blindness. For the first 13 years until the diagnosis I was able to read. The night blindness was kind of a nuisance, but I managed. The prognosis was not very good. I was told by my 30’s I would lose most of my sight. I got through most of middle school and high school. By the time I got to college, it was getting harder and harder for me to handle reading materials. I was considered legally blind by age 18. The universities and colleges said the state of New York did provide services and help. I could have readers, I could get mobility training, I could get any other independent living skills when I became legally blind at the age of 17, Then I graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 1983 and I got accepted to Yale for a Ph.D. in Yugoslavic languages. I began Yale in fall of ’83 I remember this day pretty clearly. I was trying to write a paper, it was 1984, and suddenly the document on the screen didn’t look right. There was hole in the middle of the word. Say you were reading the word “history” you would see “h and y” but nothing in between. So I went to the ophthalmologist, he said it’s just the retinal degeneration that reached the center. It was only in one eye at the time but it was definitely making that eye unusable for reading. This was the first year of grad school. I took a few semesters off. It became much more apparent that I would have to not use my eye at all. Very soon after the other eye did the same thing. So I came to Yale in ‘83 kind of able to read normal text pretty well. By the time I came to finish my course work in spring of 1986, I came back without the ability to read and then I had readers, and I had cassettes, I had hundreds of cassettes. Most of my work was in other languages, like Russian, Serbian, Croatian, Czech, many Slavic languages. I had to find those readers.
But I kept on schedule. I became a teaching fellow. Nothing was easy those days. First of all they saw me as having gone through that transition. My professors at Yale weren’t sure I could handle it. If you come in blind, they saw it as if you had proven yourself. Here I am becoming blind while there, it’s a lot harder for them to swallow that. But luckily they gave me a chance and I became a teaching fellow in 1986-87. I kept to my schedule. I did my exams on time. I didn’t lose anytime. They accommodated me. They made some exams oral that were not oral.
Dr. Pola Rosen (PR): What were some of the other accommodations they made?
RG: They just started having scanners. The state of New York was still sponsoring me. I was doing a residence in New York. They bought a computer for me with a speech synthesizer. That helped me a lot. I had a computer; it wasn’t called JAWS. It was called Vert Plus. It was cumbersome.
PR: What do you use now besides the reader?
RG: I use a note taker called Pac Mate. I use a little camera scanner. I can take a picture of this page and it will read it back to me. I use a scanner so we can scan a lot of things. It scans and reads it to me. Back then we didn’t have that technology. I remember also in 1988 I applied for the Fulbright Scholarship for my dissertation research in Yugoslavia and I was accepted. I was about to go and I needed to get a physical done. The doctor at the Yale clinic didn’t want to approve me because of the blindness; he thought I would be in danger. There were still lots of obstacles to overcome. But I challenged that doctor and complained. It was discriminatory what he was trying to go. But I did go and I had a great time. I went to Yugoslavia before it broke apart. It changed my career because my career all focused on Yugoslavia. I went back repeatedly and became an expert on language and ethnicity of Yugoslavia. That was important to do. If I had not been standing up to that attitude and try to change it, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
PR: Where did you derive the strength and the tenacity to advocate for yourself?
RG: There was one organization that was very helpful called the National Federation of the Blind. In 1986 I won a scholarship with the National Federation of the Blind. The New York State commissioner sent me something to apply to this scholarship. But they don’t just ask you to give you a check, they ask you to come to their week long convention in Kansas City, Missouri, Kansas City, July 1986. The reason they do this they want you to get something more than a check. That’s where I derived a lot of strength. I met a lot of people who were going through the same thing I was going through and were not sitting at home. The truth of the matter is that 75% of blind people are still unemployed.
PR: What do you attribute that to?
RG: I think there are many reasons. I think part of it is how we’re educating people today. Part of educating blind people should be some form of empowerment, yes you can strive for the top, yes you can ambitious, no you can’t settle for less. Sometimes what happens is that some very well meaning schools where people want to help don’t take this extra step. It’s not just “let’s teach this person basic things, reading, writing, cooking, sewing, get around. It should be much more. I think it’s the attitude. What I noticed when going to this convention was this can do attitude. It’s an attitude that hasn’t yet occurred in the sighted world.
PR: Do you think that was a crucial point? What about the other organizations of the blind?
RG: The difference between all of these organizations that have wonderful programs for the blind, is that the one that I went to is an organization OF the blind. We are the blind speaking for ourselves. We went to these places and benefited from them. But we feel strongly that we can do more. We want to be fully incorporated into society and we’re working towards that so that in the future we can have a much higher percentage of blind people working and getting college degrees. We have a lot of goals
PR: To what extent should parents and families be trained as well to provide the proper support system?
RG: A lot of it is about attitude. When a parent fears that a child is going blind, they become quite protective and quite worried, understandingly so. There’s a lot of fear among sighted people what it must feel like to be blind. There’s a loss of control and a sense of what to expect when you go outside. Many people fear and they become hopeless. They want to stay home and be protected and have everything done for them. We’re trying to explain to people that that’s a normal human reaction, and it’s not that there’s a magic pill to change your attitude. But if you want to live your life that way, it’s not going to be particularly happy.
I’ll give you an example, there was somebody who was losing her sight and she wouldn’t use a cane. That’s because she didn’t want to be stigmatized with the cane. Blindness doesn’t mean everything is black in front of your eyes. I told her to use the cane. You’ll have a way of extracting yourself from some place you shouldn’t be going. I was in that situation where I fell into an open manhole in 1985 before I used my cane. It’s hard to let go.
PR: What were your greatest obstacles?
RG: One of the biggest obstacles was probably getting my first job, it was at a prestigious university, Georgetown, I just finished my Ph.D. You would think that was the big obstacle, but I had the help, I was doing ok. I went into my job interview. They were well meaning people asking me how would I direct homework. It wasn’t about me or whether I knew the subject. I guess I answered ok, because I did get the job, but that was an obstacle. Once I had that on my resume that was my first full time teaching job, it became much easier.
PR: How did you manage in Yugoslavia? Were there any specific obstacles there that you didn’t find in the United States?
RG: Yes, people park on the sidewalk. I had two Fulbrights, one in Yugoslavia in 1989-90 and one in Mexico in the Yugoslav Republic in 2001. I think that speaking the language disarmed everybody. I was able to communicate and that really helped. They were very accepting. It was very uncommon. You would meet someone on the street and see the Union of the Blind of Croatia or Serbia. Blindness is a worldwide issue. In some respects, I was a foreigner anyway so the blindness was just an extra thing. No one made a fuss about it. The fact that I spoke their language made them very accepting me no matter what.
PR: If you were giving a recommendation to Arnie Duncan, Mayor Bloomberg, or Joel Klein about how to make life easier about blind people, what would you suggest?
RG: Right now accessibility is important for electronic resources. When books are submitted to the Library of Congress electronically, they should be made available for blind people. We have access to the Library for the Blind, it’s a new electronic form. But those are types that are read by professionals. When a book comes out, it might not be read for another six months. If we can download things on our computer, and have the copyright allow people to read books electronically, it would be a big plus.
One of the issues in NYC is if you’re going to require hybrid taxis, there should be a way of knowing when a hybrid taxi is idling. If you’re in a hybrid car, and it’s waiting at the red light, you don’t hear it, it’s silent. If a blind person thinks it is clear to cross the street, they might be wrong. In trucks and other cars, you can hear the gas. There must be a way to tackle that issue.
Another issue is the new MTA subway platforms when they announce when the next subway is coming. Some buses do talk which is very convenient. Not just for blind people, for tourists too. That is where Europe is ahead. It’s all very clear. #
Marissa Schain is an intern at Education Update and a senior at Brooklyn College.