Avraham Rabby, Blind Diplomat and Advocate, Is Dead at 77


Avraham Rabby spoke four languages, studied at Oxford and went to the University of Chicago on a Fulbright scholarship. Born in Israel, he became an American citizen in 1980. He was intelligent, outgoing, optimistic and capable.

He appeared, in other words, like an ideal candidate to be a Foreign Service officer for the State Department when he applied in 1985. He passed the written exam on his first try.

But to department officials, Mr. Rabby had a disability that disqualified him: He was blind, having lost his sight when he was 8 because of detached retinas. The State Department had a longstanding rule excluding the blind from employment in the Foreign Service.

“You don’t ask a blind person to drive a bus or be a bank teller,” George S. Vest, a former personnel director for the Foreign Service, once explained in an interview. “There are jobs which are dangerous or unsuitable for them. And in the Foreign Service, we’re full of jobs like that.”

Mr. Rabby thought that was hogwash. He enlisted a lawyer and waged a yearslong campaign to overturn the policy. In 1989, he finally succeeded, becoming the first blind person to be hired by the diplomatic corps, and paving the way for other blind officers.

Mr. Rabby died on April 17 at Tel HaShomer Hospital in Ramat Gan, Israel, near Tel Aviv. He was 77. A niece, Ofra Hod, said the cause was cancer.

Mark Riccobono, the president of the National Federation of the Blind, an advocacy group based in Baltimore, said that Mr. Rabby, who went by Rami, was a hero in the civil rights movement for blind people.

“It’s always difficult to be the first person to push on the barriers, to make the sacrifice to say this is wrong,” Mr. Riccobono said. “Rami did that in a way that was forceful and strong, but with continued optimism.”

Mr. Rabby’s journey to becoming a diplomat began in 1985, when he decided to switch careers. He was running a consulting firm that helped disabled people find employment; before that, he had worked in human resources for Citibank and the Ford Motor Company of Britain.

But he soon discovered the State Department’s discriminatory policy. He passed the written exam three times and the oral assessments twice, but the State Department still barred him from the diplomatic corps.

State Department officials maintained that blind diplomats would be unable to handle all the paperwork and operate safely in a high-security environment. In addition, they argued, diplomats had to be able to pick up on subtle nonverbal cues like winks or nods.

Mr. Rabby methodically picked apart each claim before a congressional hearing in 1989 that his advocacy had helped bring about. On the last point, he noted that blind judges, blind lawyers and blind psychiatrists interpreted behavioral cues just fine by auditory and other means. “To the best of my knowledge,” he said, “no international treaty or agreement has ever depended on being signed on the basis of a wink or a nod.”

As a result of public pressure, the State Department reversed course and agreed to hire Mr. Rabby and consider other blind applicants. His first posting in 1990 was to the American Embassy in London, where he worked as a junior officer. Over the next 17 years, he was posted in Europe, Africa, South America and South Asia. His last posting was as chief of the political section at the American Embassy in Trinidad and Tobago.

Mr. Rabby sent cables to Washington using a Braille note-taker, and used a computer speech program to listen to email messages. He also had a full-time assistant.

Otherwise, his diplomatic career was not extraordinary. And for Mr. Rabby, that was the point.

As he later wrote, “The real problem facing blind people is not so much the physical loss of sight, but the low expectations the sighted society has of us and the discrimination we constantly encounter.”

Avraham Rabby was born on June 29, 1942, in Tel Aviv to Eliezer and Shulamit (Rabinovitz) Rabby. His father was a businessman, his mother a homemaker.

When he was 10, his parents sent him to a boarding school for the blind in Worcester, England. He continued his education at the University of Oxford, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and French.

In 1967, he arrived in the United States for his Fulbright scholarship at the University of Chicago and tried to stay at a Y.M.C.A. “They told him it was too much liability to have a blind person stay there,” Mr. Riccobono said.

The experience inspired Mr. Rabby to become active in the National Federation for the Blind. He served as the first president of its Illinois chapter and later on its national board.

“Rami was always a very gregarious man,” said Emi Giles, a family friend who met Mr. Rabby through her father, James Nyman, who was active in the federation. “He had this crazy laugh. He would come to the annual Federation of the Blind convention in the U.S. every year around July 4 no matter where in the world he was posted.”

He leaves no immediate survivors.

After he retired, Mr. Rabby moved back to Israel, where he grew his coin collection, enjoyed eating at the latest talked-about restaurants, listened to British and American radio and traveled extensively.

He also kept up his activism, dashing off letters to the editor when he felt the blind were being mistreated by society.



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