[NFBC-Pathfinder] Losing a Great friend in the national Federation of the Blind movement

Rochelle Houston rhouston58 at gmail.com
Tue May 3 23:23:20 UTC 2022

BLOOMFIELD, NJ – Joseph “Joe” Ruffalo Jr., the much-loved and iconic leader in New Jersey and national blindness communities, passed away quietly this morning at home, comforted by the presence of family members and friends.  His death follows his valiant multi-year battle with metastasized bladder cancer that developed from Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam War.
Born on July 6, 1949, to Joe and Rose Ruffalo in Montclair, Joe grew up in Bloomfield and was one of five siblings, three of whom, like him, became blind from the inherited eye condition retinitis pigmentosa. It was his loss of eyesight that would change his life and those of thousands of people with whom he connected during his adult life.
He graduated from Bloomfield High School, attended what was then 
Montclair State College, and served in the US Army in Vietnam from 1969-70.  He was awarded a Bronze Star for valor. He also brought home a number of service-related health issues, including his cancer, which would not manifest themselves until five decades later.
Joe learned in 1976 that retinitis pigmentosa would slowly claim his vision. For six years he continued his work as a manager in a Thom McAn shoe store, but by 1983 he began looking for guidance about how to achieve greater proficiency and control over his life as a blind adult.
As it happened, Joe dedicated his adult life modeling and teaching others the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind: teach the public that blindness is only a characteristic of each blind individual.  Empowered by proper training, skills, attitude, and techniques, blindness can be reduced to a physical nuisance. And bolstered by love, hope and determination, each blind or visually impaired person can indeed live the lives they want.

Back in the 1980s, professionals at the NJ state blindness agency discouraged Joe from learning any blindness skills including the use of a white mobility cane because he still had reliable residual vision so could do without them.
Though eager to obtain the necessary skills, at the time Joe believed he had no recourse but to adhere to the advice of the only professionals he knew. Not until 1986 did he learn to use a cane, and he accomplished that by teaching himself. While at the state blindness training center, then located in Newark, Joe discovered a talent for baking which led to a successful nine-year career as the owner of a pastry business.
In 1988 Joe tentatively attended his first NFB chapter meeting in Newark. He reported that after ten minutes he knew that his life was about to change dramatically. Realizing that the NFB was a place of fraternity and empowerment, empathy and accomplishment, Joe says, "I saw blind people doing things I wanted to do. They were holding jobs, volunteering, and achieving in every pursuit." This was the beginning of Joe's own growth and achievement as a blind person. In 1990 he became second vice president of the New Jersey affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind. 
Two years later he was first vice president and by 1993 he was president of the NFBNJ, a position he held until 2020. “It is a tremendous honor and responsibility to promote positive attitudes about blindness and the abilities of blind people," Joe said at the time.  He was a member of the NFB National Board of Directors for 20  years and it would be difficult to find a blind New Jerseyan who has not met Joe or been helped directly or indirectly by him.
Joe's community involvement was not limited to the National Federation of the Blind. He was a leader in the Lions Club of Belleville for more than 25 years, serving as president for three. He has also held positions as zone/regent chair and served on the district 16-B cabinet. 
In more than 24 years with the Knights of Columbus, Joe held the positions of guard, warden, and deputy grand knight, and was an active member of the Boy Scouts of America for more than 14 years.
 As past president of the Special Education Parent and Professional Organization for13 years and past chairman of the board of trustees of the NJ Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired (CBVI), he further worked to ensure the full integration of people with disabilities into society. He received the agency’s Trailblazer Award two years ago for his achievements and contributions to the blindness community.
Joe attended the Therapeutic Massage Center to obtain certification in massage therapy and from 1998 to 2000 provided massage for staff, patients, and visitors at Clara Maass Medical Center in Belleville, before moving his practice to a private office. He has served as a consultant to the Somerset School of Massage, making recommendations to staff and students and answering questions about training methods for blind students.
Joe also worked to smooth others' transitions from dependence to independence as a leader in two programs sponsored by the NJ Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired. He was previously employed by the First Occupational Center of New Jersey as a program specialist in the Senior Community Independent Living Services (SCILS) program, which identifies people over age fifty-five in Essex and Ocean counties who experienced vision loss, with the goal of teaching independence skills so that these seniors can remain active in the community and independent in their homes. 
Joe’s dedication to the blindness community stretched along the lifespan, As state program director and northern region coordinator of the Leadership, Education, Advocacy, and Determination (LEAD) program, administered in partnership with Heightened Independence and Progress, Joe provided mentoring activities for blind teenagers and their families until the program was terminated in 2013.
Most recently, Joe served as a mentor to blind and visually impaired high school students in a transition program sponsored by the NJ CBVI and the Family Resource Center called EDGE for Employment, Direction, Guidance and Engagement.
Joe's many contributions to the community were recognized in November 2000when he was honored with the Partnership for Progress Award at the NJ Commission’s Believe and Achieve ninetieth anniversary celebration and he was presented in 2020 with the agency’s Trailblazer Award.
In July 2001 his leadership in the blindness community was again acknowledged when he was elected to the board of directors of the National Federation of the Blind. In October of 2002 the State of New Jersey honored by presenting him with the New Jersey Vietnam Service Medal.
Joe was always encouraged and supported by his wife of 44 years, Judy, and his two sons, Joseph and James. In his spare time Joe liked sports of all kinds, especially baseball and basketball, and enjoyed hosting “Thru Our Eyes”, an Internet radio program that highlighted blindness issues and promote positive attitudes about blindness.
Joe's life and work expressed his commitment to the blind and their struggle for equality in society. His achievements stand as an example for others, like those of the Federationists who deeply impressed him at his first chapter meeting. He achieves and grows, facing every challenge with energy, enthusiasm, and common sense as well as his trademark sense of humor replete with jokes and stories usually told at his own expense.

In addition to his wife and two adult sons and their wives, Joe is survived by his sister Jane Degenshein also a leader in our National Federation of the Blind community and her husband Larry; his brothers Robert and Richard and another sister, Rose as well as a host of nieces, nephews great nieces and great nephews and cousins.
Additionally, surviving Joe are thousands of blind and visually impaired people of all ages across the country who have been assisted and influenced by Joe Ruffalo Jr. who lived his trademark signature: “We care, we share, we grow, we make a difference.”

Rochelle Houston,
National Federation of the Blind of California
President, Pathfinder Chapter Los Angeles
rhouston58 at gmail.com
323 807-0300
The National Federation of the Blind is a community of members and friends who believe in the hopes and dreams of the nations blind. Every day we work together to help blind people live the lives they want. 
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