by Mike Kilen
Peggy Elliott with her cat Sheriff. Photograph by Steve Pope
From the Editor: Mike Kilen is a staff writer at the Des Moines Register, but the following article he wrote for the Cornell Report, the Cornell College alumni magazine. Alumni magazines like to write profiles of interesting or distinguished alumni, so it was not particularly surprising that Peggy Elliott, Second Vice President of the National Federation of the Blind, received a call from her Alma Mater, asking for an interview. Peggy was a bit leery of the idea, knowing all too well that such features all too often turn out maudlin or pretentiously inspirational. She insisted on seeing the finished product for approval before she would agree to schedule the interview or give the reporter the names of other people he could call. The resulting piece was as focused, lively, and decisive as Peggy herself. Here it is, reprinted with permission from the Cornell Report:
Peggy Pinder Elliott '76 has always bristled at people fawning over her because she is blind. If one more person says that she is "amazing," it may just send this Iowa lawyer into a courtroom‑like rant. So entering the kitchen of the former Cornellian editor with a notebook can be intimidating.
"You aren't going to make this sappy, are you?" she asks. It comes off more as a demand than a question. Elliott is not about the sweet stuff. Exactly thirty seconds will be spent on the condition that has led to this unwanted attention. By fourth grade she couldn't even see the chalkboard; her progressive eye disease worsened until she was blind by ninth grade. Period. There is nothing in the record to relate any kind of psychoanalysis of what she can't see, how she "overcame" anything but a minor nuisance. "Blindness," she says, "is no different from having brown hair."
Here's the rub, one that has defined Elliott's life. Her guiding philosophy is that people who are blind shouldn't receive special treatment. But she acknowledges that they may need special provisions to live in a sighted world.
"That's the tension spot, right there," she says, her index finger tapping the kitchen table. "Right there."
So it has been since the beginning, back when she left the state school for the blind in Vinton after two-and-a-half years and graduated from Grinnell High School. She enrolled at Cornell in 1972 and quickly recognized she must prove herself. She was told she couldn't be the editor of the paper alone. She would need a sighted coeditor. "He quit after about two weeks, and I ended up doing it alone," she said.
She was told she couldn't take a logic course because she needed to see the chalkboard. "I ended up tutoring most of the class," she says. "I was listening, rather than watching."
She was told she didn't need to take a physical education course, and although she disliked P.E., she took it anyway to prove she didn't need special treatment.
Elliott applied to law schools during her senior year. The University of Iowa admissions officials, she says, told her there were looming questions about her ability to withstand the rigors of law school. Meanwhile Yale accepted her. She thought some of them pompous there, too. When a professor asked the class if they were ready to conduct themselves as one of the elite, she shot back: "I would think that the elite are the people who earn it."
Elliott began to attract attention, a short Iowa girl with long hair down her back. People started to call her amazing. She wanted to fight discrimination against blind people, who were "overprotected and underemployed," she told one reporter. "When I first met her she was hoarse from yelling at a demonstration," says Barbara Pierce, editor of the Braille Monitor and her longtime associate in the National Federation of the Blind. "There is nothing vanilla about Peggy. She is sherbet or chocolate fudge."
Elliott climbed the podium at the Republican National Convention in 1976 and on tiptoes provided a nominating speech for Robert Dole. "She had the poise to be able to second the nomination and figure out how to work in the National Federation of the Blind, all in a couple minutes," Pierce says. "She pulled it off beautifully."
NBC's Tom Brokaw approached her afterward for an interview. "Later," she told him, eyeing the podium where former Iowa governor Robert Ray was speaking. "I'm listening to my governor." When a reporter asked her how she managed to pull off such confidence, being "visually handicapped," she curtly cut off all the correctness by saying, "blind."
"Every blind person has to move out of the safety net," she says. "Accept the choice of freedom to have the choice of success."
Even with her pitch for no special recognition, she continued to see discrimination. After graduating from Yale, she got no offers from big law firms, unheard of for her strong classroom standing at Yale.
Elliott says she wanted to return to Iowa anyway. After a stint as assistant county attorney in Sioux City, she came back to her hometown of Grinnell. One thing she had learned from her parents, Al and Dorothy Pinder, was to give back to the community.
The giving occurred on two fronts. She toils tirelessly for the National Federation of the Blind, today as a vice president and a president of the state affiliate. In Grinnell she has served on the city council since 1988. She can talk sewers with the locals and disability legislation with U.S. senators with equal skill.
It was her strong voice of disapproval which ensured important language was added to the Americans with Disabilities Act that a disabled person had the right to refuse special treatment. Yet among her highest goals is to make the world accessible to people who are blind when technology and other barriers make it difficult to navigate. Automated teller machines are one example. She encourages banks to supply machines with a unit that can be plugged in to help people who are blind navigate the transaction without fear of a mistake.
During all her activism she still suffered the indignities of an ignorant sighted world. She was arrested and carried off an airplane in 1988 when she refused to give up her seat. Airline officials said it was their policy to seat disabled persons in another part of the plane. She voiced her displeasure, of course. She is an attorney, after all. In her private practice she works for nonprofit agencies that have difficulty funding representation. In her role as scholarship chairperson with the National Federation of the Blind, she pushes young people to represent themselves as equals.
Today, living on a quiet street in a large house in Grinnell, she can see it from another angle after years of fighting the system. One of her cats, Sheriff, is blind. Elliott and husband Doug Elliott, who is also blind, carried the little kitten around at first, even to the litter box. One day they each thought the other had the cat downstairs. Sheriff had to do her business in the litter box, however, and had found her way up the stairs to it-‑without their help.
"We were even doing it to our own cat," Elliott says, laughing.
The resourceful cat also supplied another reminder of Elliott's lifelong philosophy. "If you believe you can do something," she says, "you figure out a way."