Avraham Rabby spoke four languages, studied in Oxford and went to the University of Chicago on a Fulbright Scholarship. He was born in Israel and was an American citizen in 1980. He was intelligent, sociable, optimistic and capable.
In other words, he appeared to be an ideal candidate to be a Foreign Service official for the State Department when he applied in 1985. He passed the written exam on his first attempt.
But for department officials, Mr. Rabby had a disability that disqualified him: he was blind and had lost his eyesight when he was 8 years old due to detached retina. The State Department had a longstanding rule that blind people were excluded from employment in the foreign service.
“You don’t ask a blind man to drive a bus or be a bank employee,” said George S. Vest, a former head of human resources at the Foreign Service, in an interview. “There are jobs that are dangerous or unsuitable for them. And in the foreign service, we are full of such jobs. “
Mr. Rabby thought it was nonsense. He hired a lawyer and ran a year-long campaign to overturn politics. In 1989 he finally managed to become the first blind person to be hired by the diplomatic corps and to pave 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 years old. A niece, Ofra Hod, said the cause was cancer.
Mark Riccobono, the President of the National Association of the Blind, a Baltimore-based advocacy group, said that Mr. Rabby, who left Rami, was a hero in the civil rights movement for the blind.
“It is always difficult to be the first to break the barriers and make the sacrifice to say that this is wrong,” said Riccobono. “Rami did it in a way that was powerful and strong, but with continued optimism.”
Mr. Rabby’s diplomatic journey began in 1985 when he decided to change careers. He ran a consulting firm that helped disabled people find work. Previously, he worked in the human resources department of Citibank and the Ford Motor Company of Britain.
But he soon discovered the discriminatory policies of the State Department. He passed the written exam three times and the oral exam twice, but the State Department continued to ban the diplomatic corps.
State Department officials claimed that blind diplomats would not be able to complete all the formalities and work safely in an environment with high security. In addition, diplomats should be able to grasp subtle non-verbal cues such as winks or nods.
Mr. Rabby methodically explored any allegation that led to his approval before a 1989 congressional hearing. On the last point, he noted that blind judges, blind lawyers, and blind psychiatrists interpreted behavioral characteristics well by auditory and other means. “To the best of my knowledge,” he said, “no international contract or agreement was ever dependent on being winked or nodded.”
Due to public pressure, the State Department reversed the course and agreed to hire Mr. Rabby and consider other blind applicants. His first post in 1990 was at the American embassy in London, where he worked as a junior officer. Over the next 17 years, he worked in Europe, Africa, South America and South Asia. Most recently, he was head of the political department of the American embassy in Trinidad and Tobago.
Mr. Rabby sent cables to Washington with a Braille note-taker and used a computer language program to listen to email messages. He also had a full time assistant.
Otherwise, his diplomatic career was not exceptional. And that was the point for Mr. Rabby.
He later wrote: “The real problem for the blind is not so much the physical loss of vision, but the low expectations that sighted society has of us and the discrimination that 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 housewife.
When he was 10 years old, 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 obtained a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and French.
In 1967 he came to the USA for his Fulbright scholarship at the University of Chicago and tried to take a Y.M.C.A. “You told him it was too much liability if a blind man stayed there,” Riccobono said.
The experience inspired Mr. Rabby to become active in the National Federation of the Blind. He was the first president of the Illinois chapter and later the National Board.
“Rami has always been a very sociable man,” said Emi Giles, a friend of the family who met Mr. Rabby through her father James Nyman, who was active in the Federation. “He had that crazy laugh. He came to the annual Federation of the Blind in the United States every July 4th, no matter where in the world he was stationed. “
He leaves no immediate survivors.
After his retirement, Mr. Rabby returned to Israel, where he expanded his coin collection, enjoyed eating in the latest restaurants, listening to British and American radio, and traveling a lot.
He also continued his activism and crashed letters to the editor when he felt that blind people were being mistreated by society.