by Marc Maurer
I do not remember when I first met Adrienne Asch, but it must have been in the 1970s. She has been a member of the National Federation of the blind for many decades. Although she was not prominent in the leadership of the organization, she was a dramatically strong supporter of the Federation and a significant factor in its work.
Those who knew Adrienne were aware that she was a professor, a bioethicist, a singer, and a joyful advocate for recognition of the value of human dignity. She was a champion of the rights of the blind and otherwise disabled, and she wrote and lectured extensively about ethical questions pertaining to disability. On occasion she appeared in public debates against those who espoused philosophical points of view that denigrated certain individuals because of their physical disabilities or other characteristics sometimes thought to be badges of inferiority. It is now possible to examine a human fetus before birth to determine whether it is likely that the developing child will have disabilities. Some doctors recommend aborting such children if they are likely to have disabling conditions. Such arguments encourage the notion that those thought to be imperfect should be eliminated from the human race. Killing the so-called deformed because those without disabilities regard such differences as badges of inferiority struck Dr. Asch as a gruesome procedure not to be tolerated by civilized, moral people.
An early adopter of access technology for the blind, Adrienne learned about all of the tools manufactured to help blind people gain access to information. With technology and the assistance of human readers, she read extensively about the subjects that she taught and wrote about. Because she used every kind of access technology, she could evaluate a product being offered to the blind. Once she called me to say she was working on a major presentation, that she had turned her display upside down, and that some of its pins had fallen out. She asked if I could help her with a replacement unit while hers was being repaired, and this I was glad to do. She urged manufacturers to incorporate features that would make Braille devices more useful to academics. For all that they offer in the way of quick and convenient Braille, most notetakers cannot handle footnotes, the generation of a table of contents, or a number of other features generally found in state-of-the-art word processors.
Although Adrienne achieved national and international recognition for her work as a bioethicist, those who knew her well were aware that she felt her life was incomplete. She yearned to find a partner with whom she could share her life, but the bliss that can come with a marriage and family never worked out for her. This was probably her greatest regret.
I met with Adrienne a couple of times a year. She came to the national conventions of the Federation, and she bought a hundred Jernigan Fund tickets each year. I kept expecting her to win the raffle at the banquet, but somehow none of her one hundred tickets was ever drawn for the prize. I am quite certain that this did not trouble Dr. Asch. Each year in the fall she attended a board meeting of the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults. She served as the ethics officer for the corporation. One year she gave me a recording of Christmas carols that she had made with a choir in New York. She loved the Christmas season, and she knew that I shared this love. Although she was Jewish, she knew all the Christmas music and took great joy in performing it. Regardless of the time of year that the board meeting took place, after we learned of Adrienne’s magnificent vocal abilities, we sang Christmas carols. Dr. Asch did enormously effective serious work in philosophy, ethics, and medicine. But I will remember her most for the joy and zest for living that were part of her.