[AI] The blind diplomat

Geetha Shamanna 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 [4]MARC LACEY

     PORT OF SPAIN, [5]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
     like that.

     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 [6]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 [7]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 [8]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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