When Roberta Griffith graduated from Western Reserve University in June 1891, she had clear plans for her future. First, she would finish a novel she had begun as a student. Following that, she would turn to travel writing to support herself. Within a decade, however, her career took a turn. She began to devote all her time and talents to helping the blind and visually impaired, and building a network of like-minded individuals. This came as no surprise to her family and friends. Griffith had lost her own sight shortly after she was born.
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1867, Roberta Griffith was the third child of immigrant Annie Griffith. Her father’s name is not known, and he seems to have disappeared from the family at about the time of her arrival. Roberta lost her sight shortly after birth, probably from opthalmia neonatorum: an infection that plagued newborns of the time.
Little is known about Roberta’s childhood in Pittsburgh, or her parents’ reaction to her blindness. But historical sources describe the late 1800s as a period when blindness was often associated with impaired mental development, and there were few services or facilities for visually impaired children. Most often, they remained with their families or depended on charity; their highest aspirations were limited to manual-training programs taught at city- or state-run institutions.
Roberta Griffith’s early years hewed to this latter course. When her family moved from Pennsylvania to Bay City, Michigan, she was taught at home until age 12 then joined about 40 other students at the Michigan School for the Blind in Lansing. There she developed sewing, shorthand, and typewriting skills and took music classes. She spent her final high school year at the Ohio School for the Blind in Columbus, which offered a more fully developed curriculum taught by a larger, more experienced faculty.
OFF TO COLLEGE
Griffith’s performance, especially in writing, impressed teachers and administrators at the Ohio school. When she graduated in 1887, they supported her decision to seek admission to the new Women’s College of Western Reserve University, even though it lacked a curriculum or programs for the visually impaired. Hesitant administrators and faculty at the university insisted she undergo a one-week probationary period to ensure that she could keep up with the work and that her presence would not disrupt others in the classroom.
Griffith faced other obstacles as well. Her texts were not available in braille and could not be withdrawn from the library, compelling her to buy personal copies and hire a reader. Thanks to her earlier training, she was able to use a standard typewriter to prepare her papers. To supplement scholarship funds, Griffith taught piano to classes of up to 30 sighted students, using her own system of embossed musical notation.
In 1891, she became what many believe was the first blind woman in the United States to graduate from a school for sighted students. (She also finished in three years, instead of the traditional four.) Griffith had achieved goals that many believed unattainable, and left few doubting she would continue in that vein outside of academia.
SETTLING IN GRAND RAPIDS
For several years, Griffith worked as a travel journalist, selling feature stories to newspapers while simultaneously working on a six-volume dictionary for the blind—the first such tool for blind writers. A May 5, 1092 story written about her in the Chicago Examiner informed readers that she was also working on a simplified spelling system for the visually impaired and an enhanced embossed printing system consolidated from the three then in use. The article concluded with the information that she had recently moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan to be with her aging mother.
The two women decided to have a home built for them at 238 Clancy Street on the city’s near northeast side. Roberta used her embossing system to press out, in precise lines, her plans for a two-story structure where she could comfortably live, write, and teach.
Hardly had the two women moved into their new home when disaster struck. The house stood in the shadow of Grand Rapids’ Belknap Hill reservoir, where drinking water was impounded so downward pressure could deliver it to homes throughout the city. The reservoir’s walls had been poorly made, a fact that was proven on July 2, 1900 when water began seeping through a spot softened by heavy summer rains. Unobserved, the seepage became a flash flood that rolled down streets and through nearby yards, leaving houses precariously tilted and their occupants’ furniture and possessions laden with mud. Among the items destroyed was the manuscript for the dictionary Griffith was working so hard to complete.
The flood disrupted but did not change Roberta Griffith’s mission. She had her home repaired and started her dictionary anew. More significant, she began building networks among educators and advocates for the blind. At a 1900 statewide meeting, she spearheaded the founding and then became first president of a bureau to “find places of employment for blind people and also educate them for such employment as they are able to pursue.” From her Grand Rapids home, she and two non-sighted volunteers began preparing lists of visually impaired workers and their skills for use by possible employers. When a reporter asked about the listed workers, Griffith responded that Michigan had blind musicians, writers, teachers, businessmen, salesmen, farmers, and real estate agents, in addition to piano tuners, broom makers, and carpet and basket weavers, and all were ready to go to work.
Citing her own experience, she wrote in an October 12, 1902 Grand Rapids Herald article titled “Things the Blind Can Do” that she had answered an advertisement for women to do crocheting for a mercantile firm. Though she had produced such work as a student, the firm refused to employ her. Only when a friend intervened was she able to convince the company that she was capable. On another occasion, she offered to do housework for an ill friend, but first had to explain to the woman’s husband that if she could graduate from college, she “ought to be able to wash dishes and dust.”
Soon after its founding, the employment bureau found a welcome ally in the Grand Rapids Public Library (GRPL). A new building for the library was in the planning stage, and Griffith seized upon that opportunity to meet with its donor, director, and board to lobby for a study room for the blind that would include braille publications and a typewriter. Her model was the Library of Congress as well as a group of larger libraries around the country, including the Boston Public Library, the Pennsylvania Home Teaching Society and Free Library in Philadelphia, the Chicago Public Library, the New York City Public Library, and the Detroit Public Library. Shortly after, at Griffith’s urging, GRPL joined 17 other institutions as a member of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.
Griffith’s reputation as an advocate for services for the blind was growing.
In 1921, Griffith was invited to a meeting of the American Association of Workers for the Blind, held in Vinton, Iowa. Inspired in part by the needs of American veterans of the first world war, the attendees formed the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) with the goals of broadening access to technology for people with visual impairments, elevating the quality of information and tools available to professionals serving such people, and promoting independent living by providing non-sighted individuals and their families with relevant and timely resources. Urged by Griffith, who had earlier lobbied members of Congress on behalf of the children of Civil War veterans, AFB also pledged to represent the needs of recent veterans with vision loss suffered while in service to America.
Griffith remained an active member of the American Foundation for nearly two decades, and during that time saw the organization take the lead in standardizing the English braille code—which she worked on together with Helen Keller—and establishing a publications program for teachers and administrators of programs for the non-sighted.
Closer to home, Griffith established the Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired (ABVI) in 1913 to serve Grand Rapids and the surrounding area. Named to head the new organization as its executive secretary, she held the position for nearly 30 years. During that time, she created a variety of training programs ranging from typewriting to embroidery, basket weaving, and piano tuning—skills she had learned earlier as a young student in state-run schools. She also recruited volunteers to help with the programs and to provide child care while mothers learned skills they needed to support themselves and their families. To complement ABVI’s adult services, Griffith and her staff worked with city and county schools to enhance learning experiences for visually impaired students. Among other steps, she promoted early testing to identify children with vision problems and argued for the integration of the sighted and non-sighted in classrooms.
During her ABVI tenure, she also raised an adopted daughter named Genevieve.
STILL MAKING AN IMPACT
Griffith remained active in the organization’s administration until her death at age 74 in 1941. Editorial tributes in local newspapers spoke movingly of her determined, charismatic role in establishing services for the blind, placing her in the company of other Progressive women like Jane Addams in Chicago. She was hailed as a widely respected community leader.
Although she had lived in Grand Rapids much of her life, she chose to be interred with her family of origin in Bay City’s Oak Ridge Cemetery. In Grand Rapids, she left her home and estate to ABVI, ensuring that the agency she founded would have the resources to continue its mission.
Today, more than 100 years after it was formed, ABVI remains her greatest legacy and West Michigan’s most important provider of services for those with vision loss. It has new offices, a larger staff, more funding with which to assist a larger clientele than in Griffith’s time. But it has not wavered from her original goals: to offer education, hope, and encouragement to people with vision loss, so that they might thrive in a sighted world.
For her many accomplishments, Roberta Griffith was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame—one of 16 Grand Rapids-area women to be so honored.
(Photo left) Roberta Griffith, who founded ABVI in 1913.
(Photo right) Grand Rapids Public Library added a reading room for the blind, through Roberta’s lobbying efforts
This article first appeared in Michigan History magazine in the January/February 2016 issue.