[blindLaw] For those of you who knew Rhonda Weiss, blind attorney
Noel.Nightingale at ed.gov
Wed Dec 15 01:06:14 UTC 2021
For those of you who knew blind attorney Rhonda Weiss, I am forwarding.
He was her eyesight. She was his everything.
By Petula Dvorak<https://www.washingtonpost.com/people/petula-dvorak/>
Yesterday at 4:27 p.m. EST
Three months of the Blue Sky planner from Staples are nearly full now. Appointments and numbers, people and times, every box and every line something she once kept in her head for him.
Rhonda Weiss had a memory “like a computer,” said her husband, Allen Hirsh, <https://bethesdamagazine.com/bethesda-magazine/january-february-2018/the-mix-master/> 74. “I would just have to say: ’I have an appointment,’ and she would remember it and remind me of it.”
The day after Weiss’s death — on Oct. 19, from brain cancer — Hirsh began filling up the planner, thinking about how much his wife of 34 years had done for him every day.
And the small tasks he did for her. There he was, helping her with the occasional button, doing the cooking, driving her everywhere — a helpmate in life for an extraordinary woman who had been blind since shortly after birth.
It was only after her death that Hirsh discovered more about just how extraordinary she was.
Weiss kept much of her 41 years as an attorney at the U.S. Department of Education and swashbuckling disability rights advocate to herself, Hirsh said.
She helped shape and enforce some of the primary legislation, laws and regulations used to help students with disabilities in every city across America, but didn’t bring that work home with her.
“It’s bittersweet, you know,” Hirsh said. “Because there was so much she did I didn’t even know about.”
“No one had the depth of knowledge that Rhonda did,” Nancy Deutsch, one of her colleagues, said at her funeral in late October.
“No matter the topic, she knew the statutory language, the legislative history, the regulatory language, the regulatory history and all the policy documents by heart,” Deutsch said. “While all of us were fumbling around, in the early years, through our papers and files and in the later years on the computer, Rhonda would immediately know exactly what we were looking for.”
The crowd gathered that day laughed in recognition as Deutsch mimicked a moment they all clearly knew, when Rhonda perfectly quoted a letter the department had sent a dozen years ago. She was right every time.
Even by Washington standards, Weiss’s résumé was impressive, with undergraduate and law school degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and a master’s degree from Bryn Mawr.
She was born in December 1950 in Philadelphia, two months prematurely.
“For the first month, I was placed in an incubator where I received supplemental oxygen continuously,” Weiss said in a recent speech about her bumpy and difficult journey through an American education system that had little concern for students with disabilities. That oxygen therapy was later found to cause retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), which still impairs eyesight in about 14,000 premature infants every year.
“That was the standard of care at the time for premature infants,” Weiss said. “Stevie Wonder, who was born in May of 1950, received the same treatment.”
She remembered the babyish Braille storybooks her teachers found for her. The tangled reel-to-reel audiotapes of recorded books.
She spent a childhood with a voracious appetite for learning in a desert of support for children with disabilities.
“Our family doctor told my parents I expected too much of myself,” Weiss said. And a counselor once told her “that I should not compare myself to other children. That sent a very painful message.”
She was placed in classes too easy for her, then was marveled over when teachers saw the ways her mind overcame obstacles.
“I was treated like a wonder from another planet, because I was able to do math problems in my head and was not shy about class participation,” Weiss said.
She was inspired to fight for kids like her, joined disability rights protests in Philadelphia and Washington in 1977, and headed to law school.
After law school, she moved to Washington, where she began her career with the Department of Education. And she met Hirsh.
“It was a blind date, actually,” Hirsh said, with the perfunctory laugh he probably gives every time he tells the story. He didn’t know what to expect when they met.
She ate most of her restaurant meal with a fork and knife, he remembered. But occasionally, she used her hands, which were covered in burn scars from years of cooking on a gas stove by herself.
Weiss dazzled him with her serious mind and academic passion.
He loved that he could take care of her.
He wanted kids. She was unsure. He told her that he would be the kind of husband who helped.
“I cooked every night,” he said. “I cooked and shopped.”
Their kids are now 29 and 27, and they listened to their mom read to them from the Braille edition of Harry Potter on long drives in a dark car, as fast as anyone could read with their eyes. She could also read Hebrew Braille.
She sang beautifully and was a force at the Fabrangen Havurah in Chevy Chase.
“She was the major breadwinner,” he said. “The large majority of males are challenged when a spouse is making more money than they are. I may have been guilty. But that’s it.”
His beautiful wife was known as a sharp dresser, and he still doesn’t understand how she could pick out an outfit by touch and do her makeup without a mirror.
“We’d go to urgent care when she bumped into things and hurt herself. Some people would say. ‘It must be so hard,’ ” he said. “And I would tell them it’s not hard. I am completely crazy about this woman. She’s beautiful, she’s smart, she’s wonderful — it’s not that hard.”
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