[AI] The blind diplomat
geetha at millernorbert.de
Sun Jul 8 01:48:09 EDT 2007
The Saturday Profile
A U.S. Diplomat With an Extraordinary Global View
By MARC LACEY
PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad
AS chief of the political section at the American Embassy here for the
last two years, Avraham Rabby has had the job of surveying Trinidads
political landscape for Washington.
The fact that he has not actually seen the Caribbean island or any of
the places on five continents where he has been posted has not stymied
I necessarily listen more than a sighted person would, he said. If Im
walking along a street, I can tell there is a building next to me
because of the echoes of my feet or my cane. A blind person sees the
world differently from a sighted person. Our impressions are no less
Mr. Rabby, who lost his sight at the age of 8 because of detached
retinas, is the State Departments first blind diplomat. It is an
achievement he fought for in the 1980s, passing three written entrance
exams and two oral exercises along the way. But even then, the State
Department barred him from the diplomatic corps.
You dont ask a blind person to drive a bus or be a bank teller, George
S. Vest, who was the personnel director for the Foreign Service,
explained in a 1988 interview. There are jobs which are dangerous or
unsuitable for them. And in the Foreign Service, were full of jobs
The department contended that diplomats, blind ones included, had to
be able to work anywhere in the world and to work with confidential
documents without any outside aid. In addition, State Department
officials said, diplomats had to be able to pick up on nonverbal cues,
such as winks or nods, which can sometimes have more meaning than the
words being uttered.
But Mr. Rabby illustrated another essential quality of diplomats:
perseverance. No international treaty has ever been decided on the
basis of a wink or a nod, he retorted, after hiring a lawyer and
challenging the State Departments policy, which dated from the 18th
Aiding Mr. Rabbys effort was a federal law barring the government from
disqualifying prospective employees because of disabilities.
Eventually, after the news media and Congress found out about his
case, the State Department reversed course. The new policy would
consider disabled diplomats on a case-by-case basis. Mr. Rabby became
case No. 1.
In 1990, he was off to London, where he was posted at the embassy
there as a junior political officer. He moved next to Pretoria, South
Africa, where Nelson Mandela had just been freed from prison and
where Mr. Rabby witnessed the countrys first free elections. It was
one of the most stimulating experiences in my life, he said, noting
that he was one of the embassys election observers.
People ask me how I can assess a political rally if I cant see it, he
said. I tell them that I listen to the crowd and to the speakers. You
can sense what is going on.
He spent time in Washington at the State Departments Bureau of Human
Rights, and in postings in Lima and New Delhi. During a stint at the
United States Mission to the United Nations, he helped write
resolutions dealing with literacy, global health and the rights of the
His final posting he retired at the end of June at the mandatory
retirement age of 65 was to Port of Spain, where he became an expert
in Trinidads political system, which has long been divided between
parties, one predominantly Afro-Trinidadian and one Indo-Trinidadian.
When journalists descended on Trinidad recently in search of
information on the suspected plot to set off a bomb at a fuel line at
Kennedy International Airport that was traced back to this Caribbean
island, he became one of the officials to talk to.
A diplomat does a lot of writing, a lot of reading, a lot of thinking,
a lot of talking and has to attend a lot of meetings, he said. Thanks
to technological advances and a full-time assistant, Mr. Rabby could
do all of those things too.
He wrote his cables to Washington using a machine that wrote in
Braille. He then read them back to his assistant, Rhonda Singh, who
typed them up. He also had a computer with a speech program that
allowed him to listen to his e-mail messages.
As for tracking news developments, Ms. Singh, an American citizen who
lives in Trinidad, read him the local papers. I was basically his
eyes, she said.
BORN in Israel, Mr. Rabby, who is known as Rami, was sent to live with
an aunt in England at the age of 10 because his parents believed there
were better schools for the blind there. A Hebrew speaker, he quickly
mastered English at Worcester College for Blind Boys.
I remember the headmaster used to go out and speak to groups about the
school, and he used to say that we teach our boys to stand on their
own two feet and, if necessary, to step on yours too, Mr. Rabby
He went off to Oxford, where he studied French and Spanish. Finding a
job after college proved a challenge. Time and time again I met
recruiters who felt that a blind person could not work in management,
he said in the British accent that he has never lost.
Eventually, he joined Ford Motor Company in Britain, where he worked
in human resources. After about a year, he moved to the United States
and earned an M.B.A. at the University of Chicago.
After graduation in 1969, he sought out a management training program,
but had few offers after dozens and dozens, if not hundreds of
He finally landed a job with a management consulting firm, Hewitt
Associates, and later moved to Citibank. He also spent time as an
independent consultant, writing a number of employment guides,
including one giving advice to blind job seekers.
One of my problems in my working life, after a few years I get a bit
tired of what I am doing and I want to change, said Mr. Rabby, who
became an American citizen in 1980.
It was while living in New York that he decided to make the jump into
international relations, a longtime interest. The State Departments
regular rotations of its diplomats proved a perfect fit.
His fight to join the Foreign Service has helped others along the way.
There are now four blind Foreign Service officers stationed around the
globe, the State Department said, among about 170 disabled Foreign
Service employees overseas.
MR. RABBY said blind Foreign Service officers had recently been
restricted from adjudicating visa applications because of their
inability to verify photographs and signatures of applications.
Mr. Rabby, who attributes the decision to the increased restrictions
after the Sept. 11 attacks, said he did visa work at the start of his
career in London, with the assistance of a reader, who verified
documents for him. He asked the questions and assessed the responses.
The State Department is not yet completely on the side of the angels,
he said. A State Department official disputed that there was a policy
in place restricting the assignments of blind diplomats. Decisions on
assigning personnel, the official said, are made on a case-by-case
basis in accordance with the law.
Even before Mr. Rabby headed out into the world as a diplomat, he was
already testifying before Congress on his quest for the job. He said
back then that he did not want to be put in a pigeonhole as a blind
Blind people are as different from one another as sighted people, he
told members of the House Foreign Affairs and Civil Service Committees
in 1989. There is no such thing as a category labeled, blind.
Prior Beharry contributed reporting.
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