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What One Determined, Motivated, and Caring Woman Can Achieve: The Life of Doris Willoughby

by Ramona Walhof

Reprinted from Braille Monitor, Volume 64, Number 10, November 2021

From the Editor: On September 8, 2021, the NFB and the blind community lost a dedicated and innovative supporter, Doris Willoughby. In this article Ramona Walhof pays tribute to a friend, colleague, and longtime Federationist.

Doris and Curtis WilloughbyWhat can one woman accomplish without ever holding office in the NFB? Doris Willoughby graduated valedictorian from Boulder High School in Colorado and attended Grinnell College in Iowa. She taught second grade for eleven years in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Doris met Curtis Willoughby in 1966, and they were married in June of 1967. The newspaper reported that the couple honeymooned in Clear Lake, Iowa; Los Angeles, California; and in the state of Hawaii. The reason for the stop in LA was the 1967 Convention of the National Federation of the Blind.

Blindness never bothered Doris. Curtis was blind, and she began driving and reading for him immediately. Soon other blind people were included.

Judy Young was a blind student in elementary education at the State University of Iowa, but the university said it could not find an appropriate place for her to student teach. This was not a problem for Doris, who got her principal's agreement that Judy could student teach in Cedar Rapids under Doris's supervision. It did not hurt that the principal was a member of the same Lions Club as Doris's husband. Judy became an excellent teacher, and she got a job in Urbandale near Des Moines the following year. The Urbandale newspaper wrote a wonderful feature story about her. It quoted parents of her students saying what a good year their fourth graders were having in Judy's class.

Doris Willoughby began studying to teach blind children on her weekends and evenings. She received the necessary credential in 1969 from the University of Minnesota. Doris began teaching blind children the following year. When Curtis took a job in Des Moines, Doris taught blind children there.

I believe it was in 1974 that Doris came to me, speculating about whether it would be appropriate to give a blind four-year-old a white cane. The child was unwilling to move around her preschool classroom without being led. I thought Doris should give it a try. At that time, child-sized canes did not exist. Doris decided to use the lower, small end of an adult cane. She arranged to have a special one made with a small handle for the child's hand. When I next thought about it several months later, she reported that the cane was working "perfectly." This may have been the first time, but many others soon began to provide white canes for very young blind children.

Doris continued to teach blind children in central Iowa until the Willoughbys moved to Colorado in 1993. Then she taught near Denver. After her first retirement, she taught blind adults at the NFB's Colorado Center for the Blind for several years. She taught those who were preparing for US citizenship and for their high school equivalency exams. Her expectations of her students and her willingness to provide extra assistance were always noticed by her fellow teachers.

Doris believed that if classroom teachers had more knowledge about blind children, blind students would have a better experience in public school. So she wrote her first book, Your School Includes a Blind Student. Two editions were published, one in 1974 and the second in 1981. Both books were supported and published by the National Federation of the Blind.

Doris soon realized that parents and teachers of blind children often did not know what were reasonable goals and expectations. So she wrote her second book, published in 1979, A Resource Guide for Parents and Educators of Blind Children. Although this book is not up-to-date, it is still being used, and a few used copies are available on the internet. Carol Castellano said of this book, "It saved our lives!" She explained: "We were in a hospital room far from home, awaiting our infant daughter's return from eye surgery, when a social worker came in and offered us some pamphlets and a small book to read. Feeling sick inside from the words I was reading about blindness, I read it all. When I got to the book, A Resource Guide for Parents and Educators of Blind Children, I felt myself lifted up. Not only could my child survive as a blind person, but she could thrive! The author of the book was Doris Willoughby, and right then and there, Doris became a profoundly important person in my family's life.

"When the social worker returned, I told him I really liked that book. He said it was from the National Federation of the Blind. He told me they had some pretty good literature, but I should stay away from them. They were radical and militant.

"So Doris was also my introduction to the NFB. The first phone call I made when I got home was to the NFB. Five years later, at my first NFB convention, I met Doris, Curtis, and others who graciously gave their time to comfort, model, and teach this new parent."

Over the years, Doris wrote other books on the education of blind children. All have the same fundamental optimism, practicality, and positive attitude that have given parents and teachers through the decades not only hope but commonsense guidance on how to raise and educate their blind children successfully.

Barbara Cheadle was the founder of Future Reflections, the magazine for parents of blind children. She also served as president of the Parents of Blind Children Division of the NFB for twenty-five years. She writes, "It was Doris who systematically and successfully applied the Federation philosophy to the education of blind children in the integrated public school setting. It would have been much more difficult, if not impossible, to have launched Future Reflections and the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children without the foundation Doris laid with her NFB books and articles. She was integral to the success of all the Federation's outreach efforts to parents of blind children. Our workshops, seminars, articles in Future Reflections, educational videos, Braille Readers are Leaders Contest, and the campaign to get white canes into the hands of blind kids as early as possible all contain her imprint. For years, out of her home, she coordinated the distribution of videos promoting the use of white canes for blind kids."

The third book, coauthored by Doris Willoughby and Sharon Duffy, was entitled A Handbook for Itinerant and Resource Teachers of Blind and Visually Impaired Students. It was published in 1989. The book is a detailed guide with lesson plans and approaches. Although somewhat out of date, it is still being used by the University of Northern Colorado teacher of blind children training program, and it is available in limited numbers from used book sources on the internet.

Doris's last book was published in 1998, and it was also co-authored by Sharon Monthei (formerly Sharon Duffy). It is still available from the Independence Market and is entitled Modular Instruction for Independent Travel for Students Who are Blind and Visually Impaired: Preschool through High School. Sharon says that Doris convinced her that she could write. Sharon has written three additional books that have been beneficial to blind people.

Doris's mother, sisters, and husband were all ham radio operators, so she also became licensed in 1990. As a ham she worked with Curtis on emergency preparedness within the NFB and in projects with other groups. For many years Curtis and Doris together distributed and kept track of special devices for the hearing impaired and Spanish speakers needing translation during NFB conventions.

Doris was active in her church, first in Cedar Rapids, then in Des Moines, and in the cities where she lived in Colorado. She and Curtis attended at least fifty NFB conventions, and she was most disappointed when her health prevented their attendance in 2019.

For her work Doris received numerous awards. She was the Distinguished Teacher of Blind Children at the Fiftieth Anniversary Convention in 1990. The NFB of Colorado awarded Doris and Curtis the Ray McGeorge Award. The Parents of Blind Children Division presented her with two awards, one in 2008 at its twenty-fifth convention and one in 2010.

I cannot begin to mention all those who commented on Facebook and in other ways about how Doris Willoughby influenced and helped them. She was a builder and leader in changing opportunities for blind children and in giving hope and guidance to parents and teachers. Her written work is still influential. Her determination, creativity, generosity, and accumulated knowledge and skill made her a model for all to remember and emulate. We owe her a huge debt. The repayment will be to continue to build on the foundation stones she laid.

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