by Yvonne Michaud Schnitzler
Ida Scotti has experienced life in ways most people only dream.
Ida tells friends she was a stowaway when her parents sailed to this country in 1919. Her mother was expecting when the Dante Alighieri dropped anchor in New York Harbor.
After graduating from the New York Institute for the Blind, her first job was at the New York Lighthouse, operating the braille press, printing and editing “The Searchlight” and “The Gleams,” magazines for the blind. Because Ida was photogenic as well as gifted with a vivacious personality, she was an ideal person to participate in promotional work. Ida was the “poster girl.” She greeted, entertained, and had her picture taken with many well-known personalities for national and international newspapers and magazines, such as Gene Autry, Vivien Leigh, Helen Hayes, Edgar G. Robinson, David Niven, Rex Harrison, along with countless others who benefited the Lighthouse.
With her guide dog Missy, Ida stood under the 59th Street sign in Manhattan as they changed the signboard to read Lighthouse Street for a week. She posed with the owner of the Fiat Automobile Company, who donated a car each year to the Lighthouse for a raffle. Ida often appeared in publicity shots with Gov. Thomas E. Dewey and Mayor Vincent Impellitteri. She shared tea with Mrs. Ed Sullivan and others who expressed interest in the Lighthouse. Ida participated in these publicity events “. . . to show the world, differences should not exclude anyone from living a productive life.”
On other occasions, Ida was portrayed sewing pillowcases for the armed forces, and donating blood to the Red Cross, her dog Missy supervising from the cot next to her. Her picture was in newspapers selling war bonds as well as filing her income tax return. She was happy to show that “the blind contributed to society, worked and paid taxes.” However, Ida did not particularly care for her three-foot portrait plastered all over subways and transit buses raising awareness about the Lighthouse and its programs. When she and her sister rode the subway, her sister made sure they never sat under Ida’s picture, even if it meant standing.
Ida enjoyed life, especially as a member of a theater group, performing with Broadway stars in numerous stage plays like Tennessee Williams’ “Summer and Smoke” and “Little Women.” She received pages of publicity and accolades. As a blind actress playing sighted roles, she had to imagine herself as a “seeing” person. Reporters were eager to interview her.
Ida presented Helen Keller with a corsage. When Ida told Miss Keller she was happy to meet her, Helen placed her fingers on Ida’s lips and cheekbone, and exclaimed in stilted speech, “Very young.” Patty Duke, who played Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker,” visited Ida, discussing various mannerisms of blind individuals.
Adept at publicly interacting with people in the news, Ida gave informative interviews on talk shows, lifting people’s thoughts to a higher level, changing ideas and misconceptions concerning blindness. She and Missy were guests on the Steve Allen TV program. They stole the show. As Steve was leading Ida to her seat, he bumped into the desk. He said, “Here I am trying to lead you bumping into everything!” Ida quipped, “Would you like to borrow Missy?” The audience roared.
Deciding to follow her parents to Missouri in 1962, she met Durward K. McDaniel, founder of the American Council of the Blind (ACB), who encouraged her to join the Missouri Council of the Blind (MCB). She held offices, influenced legislators, served on boards and committees for MCB. Ida was a representative on the St. Louis Archdiocesan Council, served on the Wolfner Library Advisory Council, and on the Governor’s Committee for Education. She is a lector for her church, visits shut-ins, hospitals, and nursing home patients, alleviating fear in those losing their sight.
Ida’s forte is speaking and connecting with students. They better understand the capabilities of the blind and disabled and see them as people like themselves, deserving of respect. She encourages students to cultivate those special friendships. She touches older students on a deeper plane. Her inspiration leads them to view personal problems in a different light. A freshman boy, whose father had committed suicide, had been silent in class for three months. As Ida told her story, he raised his hand on three occasions and asked questions.
At the 2003 ACB convention in Pittsburgh, the ACB honored Ida with the Distinguished Service Award “in recognition of her life-long accomplishments onstage and the community. Her work is a shining example to all.” Missouri honored Ida with a life membership at the 2011 convention in Reno.
When Ida received the Ellis M. Forshee Award, the MCB’s highest honor, late MCB president Ken Emmons said, “Ida has done so much and lived a remarkable life. She has been so capable and accomplished so much, but she is modest to the point that, even though I have known her for years, I was unaware of most of the things mentioned in her nomination letter. Ida is someone who does for others without seeking glory. She is a wonderful person and a wonderful example.”
Charles Crawford, former executive director of ACB, said, “What wonderful tribute to Ida from MCB! She certainly is an extraordinary woman who has done so much to make our world a better place. No wonder Missouri plays such a pivotal role in the history of our blind community. Ida has enlightened, enheartened, and influenced every person she has ever met, whether it was a president of a country, king or queen, a child, an individual on the street, or a lonely person sitting in a nursing home. Her life is one of acceptance, gratitude, and compassion and dedicated to serving, loving, and caring about people.”