Grace Pires was elected to the National Federation of the Blind Board of Directors in July of 2022 and also serves as the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Rhode Island. She was born in Portugal in 1970. Within three months Grace’s mother Virginia realized that something was wrong with Grace’s vision. She was not actively trying to look at things, nor did she track in the way that her mother had witnessed in other children. The first visit to a local pediatrician resulted in her mother’s concerns being dismissed, but when other doctors were consulted, they agreed that there definitely was a problem, though to this day no one has been able to accurately diagnose the reason for Grace’s blindness. Some doctors have offered the opinion that she is blind because of retinitis pigmentosa, while others argued that it is most likely Leber’s disease given that she has never had any vision and the condition is genetic. Her parents did what genetic testing was available and were told there was a 25 percent chance that any future offspring would be blind. Her younger brother is blind, but the upside is that there are some important things they share together.
Grace did not start school until she was ten. The Portuguese island on which she was born had no school for the blind, and both she and her parents were very upset by the residential experience at the school on a neighboring island. After this experience, the family made a real effort to come to the United States, and it was at this point that Grace really began her formal education. “Coming to the United States was in some respects the end of my childhood. I didn’t really know what to ask for, but all of a sudden I had to be an advocate for myself and, because they didn’t speak English, for my parents as well. She was placed in the fourth grade to be near children her own age, but she certainly was in no position to do the work. She first had to learn English, then Braille, and it wasn’t until the sixth grade that she really began to hit her stride. Before that time she would rely on her cousin, a second grader who could read print, who would help her with learning to spell. She was elated when, in the seventh grade, she realized that she was independently doing work that let her study for and pass tests. “I was quite excited when I was able to take home and do my homework. I know many students who said that they couldn’t stand it, but for me the feeling was tremendous.”
Grace began receiving cane travel when she was twelve years old, and at first she had mixed feelings about the experience. “I was afraid that people were going to see by my cane that I was blind, and I laugh now at my reluctance because it is clear to me that everyone already knew I was. Even as I felt this reluctance, I loved the independence I was getting. I was happy to be an independent traveler who could walk around the school by myself and could actually go to the lady’s room without another student assisting me. I was really excited when my parents and other adults let me walk alone once they realized I could travel safely with my cane.”
“Making friends was very easy when I was a novelty, but as the novelty wore off, I began to find it more difficult when some of my friends dropped away. Luckily I had a core group that I built during middle school, and although class changes in high school meant that we were not always together, some of those friendships survived, one of them even into college.”
Unfortunately for Grace, she grew up having few role models, and the idea that a person might go to a rehabilitation center was never raised as a possibility, not to mention a wonderful opportunity. Failing to see blind people she wanted to be like, she had what she categorizes as a meltdown at age thirteen and angrily asked her teacher of the visually impaired what in the world a blind person was supposed to grow up to do and be. Her dream was to get an education, have a job, get married, and have a family. Her teacher was resourceful and took Grace to visit a lecture on health that was being given by a blind woman. “The lecture was impressive, the blind woman giving it was educated and well spoken. She gave me hope. She let me know that I could do what she was doing, that I was smart, and that I could do anything I wanted to do. This was a major turning point in my life. This woman named Monica became a mentor throughout school and in my career. We still maintain some meaningful contact today.”
Grace remembers that the first time she learned that a piece of equipment could be modified for her use was when her family got a microwave oven. She couldn’t use it, and this same teacher suggested that they mark it with dots. “When I got those dots and we put them on, I felt like it was Christmas.”
Grace attended Rhode Island College, a four-year institution near where she lived. There she took a bachelor’s degree in social work, and when she couldn’t find a job, she went back to school and earned a master’s degree in the same field. When she looked at the employment market after her bachelor’s, she was surprised to find that so much of the work involved travel and that so little in the way of transportation existed for her. By the time she had gotten her master’s degree, not only was she more qualified, but by then she enjoyed the benefits of an active paratransit system that allowed her to go to and from the homes of clients. Her first job was working part-time at an independent living center, a job that not only required significant travel but one that also gave her the opportunity to do some of her work from an office. That part-time job eventually resulted in full-time employment, and it was there that Grace worked until 2003.
She then took a job with the state of Rhode Island as a rehabilitation teacher. She did that job for six years, and what she found so amusing was that this person who had never gotten the benefit of any formal rehabilitation teaching was herself being asked to teach. She knew the techniques that needed teaching; what she didn’t know was much about the art of teaching. She is thankful for the textbooks that taught her how to pass along knowledge that she learned from her mother to others who needed to learn how to make a bed, do laundry, and safely operate a hot stove.
While working she earned another master’s degree, this one in rehabilitation counseling, and it qualified her for another job that she holds today. She works as a vocational rehabilitation counselor and has since 2009.
As soon as Grace got a job, she felt free to expand what she was doing and begin giving back. When she said that she wanted to join the National Federation of the Blind in 2000, the person she was talking with said, “Are you sure? You don’t have to!”
“My response was that I now have a job and I want to do something to give back. I most certainly want to join the NFB. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I would gain so much more from being part of this movement. From the first meeting I attended, I was treated like an old friend.” Grace says that she was pretty shy, but she felt comfortable offering to help with tasks. “Richard and Cathy Gaffney and other members were so welcoming that I brought my boyfriend and my brother. They both accompanied me to the state convention and joined on the spot.”
What Grace finds so sad is that in all of her contact with the rehabilitation system prior to employment, never did she find a role model or anyone willing to discuss with her their own blindness. Never did the people she worked with talk with her about blindness or put themselves front and center as people she might want to be like. From what she observed, those helping her, while well-intentioned, had problems dealing with their own blindness and embracing alternative techniques that would let them be comfortable with themselves and efficient in the things they did.
The lesson Grace has taken from this is that it is necessary not only for her to teach attitudes and techniques but to instill in her clients a sense that they can talk with her about blindness. She also hopes that the way she lives her life and the mastery she has gained in living life as a blind person will translate into her being role models for those she serves.
Working on legislation is of particular interest, and the passage of a parental rights bill has been immensely important to her. When she was having her son, a social worker was sent to visit at the hospital. “How will you know when to feed him?” and “How will you give him medicine?” were the kinds of questions that were repeatedly asked. Of particular concern was that the social worker, learning that Grace and her husband Robert shared a house with sighted parents, kept wanting to be reassured that the sighted couple would be involved and went so far as to have a private conference with them.
A second piece of legislation of which Grace takes pride allows for mail-in election ballots. Having a good relationship with the secretary of state means she has been a part of evaluating the ballot marking machines that were eventually purchased.
Knowing what a barrier transportation was for her, she serves on a public advisory committee which seeks to improve transportation services to Rhode Island residents. She is working on legislation to expand transportation to all disabled Rhode Islanders. She is quick to note that she is not the primary person working on this legislation and that another member of the Federation is actually spearheading the effort.
Like most busy people, there are times when Grace finds it difficult to juggle all of the responsibilities she has. Of course there are the school meetings to attend, and since her parents still do not speak English, she accompanies them whenever they go to doctor appointments and acts as a translator. “I am so lucky to have a job with some flexibility and with sick time I can use when needed. When my mother worked in a factory, she did not have this flexibility. I could only call her if there was a dire emergency. They just wouldn’t have known how to reach her. I am glad that I can now get an occasional call or text when my son needs something.”
When not otherwise engaged, Grace likes to read, knit, and take long walks outside. “I love the peace that comes in being outside with nature—it is me being me on my time.” She also admits to being somewhat addicted to Netflix, a pleasure that she and her husband Robert share together. She enjoys playing Uno with her nieces and again finds herself tremendously grateful for the contributions of Louis Braille in her life.
“I think my most important role in the Federation is to be a good listener, accept people where they are, and offer myself as a role model for those looking to be happy, to be productive, and to feel good about themselves. Sometimes life has meant hard work, but people need to see that often that is what it takes, and the rewards are well worth the effort.”