by Penny Reeder
If Charlie Crawford knows that we are honoring him on ACB’s Angel Wall, and calling him one of ACB’s angels, he is probably shaking his head and looking at us askance. “Me?” he might say. “You should think about lots of other leaders instead of me.”
Then he would begin naming leaders who are already posted on that and other memorial walls, people like Marlaina Lieberg, LeRoy Saunders, Durward McDaniel, and Justin Dart. He knew them all, he would tell us, and called each of them friend. “They were the angels,” he would say. “Not me, I’m just a regular guy.”
We would have to disagree. Charlie Crawford was the best advocate of anyone we’ve ever known. It was Charlie who taught most of us how to advocate effectively for our civil rights as people who are blind. It was Charlie who insisted that rehabilitation agencies are not honoring the people they purport to serve unless they make their consumers’ needs, goals and dreams a guiding priority. Charlie knew that the concept of equality is meaningless unless every single human being is treated fairly. He taught us these important principles, and he taught us how to advocate on behalf of every person with a disability, within ACB, at the local, state, and national levels of government, and with legislators and administrators. He taught us by example, and he insisted on teaching all of us who need to know how to advocate successfully for our rights as clients of rehabilitation, or students in public schools or universities, as pedestrians who just want to walk through the built environment safely and with dignity, as guide dog users, theater-goers, travelers on trains and buses and airplanes and paratransit vehicles, and people who like to go to movies and watch TV, to understand that we have rights and how to advocate for them.
Remember ACB’s Pedestrian Safety Handbook, editions I and II? It was Charlie who saw their publication come to fruition. ACB members and non-members alike can still turn to these manuals to learn how to advocate successfully for accessible pedestrian signals and tactile markings on train platforms to save themselves from injury and death.
Remember the principles of effective rehabilitation? Even if you don’t remember every one as enumerated so often by Charlie, or if you’re new to ACB and haven’t heard Charlie’s educational outreach on the topic of consumer choice and consumer-centered vocational rehabilitation, if you’re a client of a state rehab agency, you can thank Charlie for his advocacy with the agencies who were making vocational rehabilitation policy during the 1980s and ‘90s for any success you are having getting the services you need – and choose! If you were a consumer of blindness services who lived in Massachusetts during the years when Charlie served as commissioner, you are doubtless aware that it was in the Bay State where Charlie first began thinking about these important consumer rights of self-determination and began relying on those concepts when making agency policy.
Our first successes persuading the FCC that making the visual on movie screens and televisions accessible to people who are blind with audio description came during Charlie’s years of service as ACB’s executive director, and Charlie was so enthusiastic about audio description when it first arrived on our television screens that he was quite likely the nation’s oldest and most exuberant fan of “Clifford, The Big Red Dog,” one of the first children’s programs to be audio-described.
Charlie was a people person. We never, ever heard him say an unkind word to anyone. He connected with everyone he met, often with gentle humor, and always with empathy and understanding. Charlie Crawford made friends with people everywhere he ever lived, and after the Internet allowed us to meet and know and discuss things with people all over the world, his circle of friends and admirers grew to enormity!
Charlie and several young friends in Massachusetts founded the Blind Leadership Club in 1971, and he served as its first president. That club became the Bay State affiliate of the American Council of the Blind. Bay State is co-sponsoring Charlie Crawford’s spot on ACB’s Angel Wall, and so is the National Capital Area Chapter of the ACB of Maryland state affiliate, for it was when Charlie and Susan moved from Massachusetts to Silver Spring, Md., in the mid-1990s that NCAC regenerated into the vibrant and supportive advocacy organization that it is today.
After he directed the Client Assistance Program at the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind, Governor Michael Dukakis appointed Charlie the agency’s commissioner in 1984. He served the community in that position until he left to become executive director of ACB in 1998. After leaving ACB, he served briefly as director of blindness services at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C. He was just beginning to plan how to apply that philosophy of self-determination at the VA when he experienced a devastating aneurysm and stroke which required all of his self-determination and strength for recovery.
Recover he did, and he spent the last 16 years continuing to make a positive difference in the lives of people with disabilities living in the Washington, D.C. area – and beyond – serving on the board of the Equal Rights Center in Washington, D.C., and on the Montgomery County, Md. Commission on People with Disabilities. Charlie represented all Marylanders with disabilities when he advocated in front of the state legislature for laws which require health care professionals to include people with disabilities in decisions which affect their personal care. He trained paratransit drivers to treat riders on Metro Access vehicles with the dignity and respect everyone deserves, and in the last months of his life, he was working with the local Vision Zero organization to assure that the rights of pedestrians with disabilities are accorded as much attention as the rights of drivers and people who ride scooters and bicycles. If you, as a person with a disability, or an organization who represents people with disabilities or others who struggle to receive the civil rights to which they are entitled, found yourself in need of effective advocacy, you could count on Charlie Crawford to testify, or spend hours in meetings, or write letters, or policy directives, or simply to be present as a confidant, an advisor, or a friend.
An innovator, Charlie created numerous opportunities for people with blindness or other disabilities to enjoy fulfilling lives within their families and communities. In Massachusetts, he partnered with the Boston Public Schools to establish an after-school recreation program for blind students who welcomed friends without disabilities. Before the days of the Internet, he created an accessible computer bulletin board service to encourage blind students and adults to develop computer skills by playing games. He created several computer programs, including the Talking Checkbook, and enjoyed collaborating with others to make improvements. He gave every program he developed away, free of charge.
Charlie contributed to so many initiatives benefiting those with and without disabilities. He was an ardent advocate for accessible communication technology, accessible voting, pedestrian safety, audio description on screens and in theaters, and accessible transportation. He testified before Congress in support of Medicare’s coverage of medical treatment for macular degeneration, to prevent blindness. Over the years, he served on many boards, including the Council of State Agencies for Vocational Rehabilitation, National Council of State Agencies for the Blind, the Maryland Rehabilitation Council, and Guide Dog Users, Inc., where he also served as Director of Advocacy. He received many awards, including the Morris Frank Award from the Seeing Eye, and the George Card Award from ACB.
Charlie is survived by Susan Crawford, his beloved wife of 34 years, stepson Steve Lehotsky, daughter-in-law Caitlin Talmadge, grandchildren Jack and Caroline, brothers and sisters-in-law, cousins, and nieces and nephews. He has friends near and far.
We welcome other members of our ACB family to support our plan to honor Charlie as an ACB angel. To add your contributions to those of Guide Dog Users, Inc., the Bay State Council of the Blind, and the National Capital Chapter of the ACB of Maryland, contact ACB’s financial office in Minneapolis at (612) 332-3242. Nancy Marks-Becker will be pleased to add your contribution to the tally. If you get voicemail, please leave a message with your name and a phone number where you can be reached. Thank you.