The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Avraham Rabby, blind activist who fought to enter Foreign Service, dies at 77

Avraham Rabby, a blind activist and management consultant who passed five State Department entrance examinations and in 1989 prevailed in a protracted dispute with the department over his qualifications to be a Foreign Service officer, died April 17 in a hospital near Tel Aviv. He was 77.

The cause was cancer, said a niece, Ofra Hod.

In 1990, Mr. Rabby began a 17-year Foreign Service career that would include posts in Europe, Africa, South America and South Asia. He was a “champion for the employment of the disabled at the State Department,” said Judith E. Heumann, special adviser for disability rights at the State Department during the administration of President Barack Obama.

Mr. Rabby, known to friends as Rami, was a native of Tel Aviv with honors degrees in French and Spanish from the University of Oxford in England and a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Chicago. He became a U.S. citizen in 1980, worked as a management consultant for Citibank on issues of equal rights and opportunities for the blind, and tried unsuccessfully for almost a decade to join the Foreign Service.

“It is absolutely unconscionable that the rest of the government has shown itself to be able to employ blind people constructively,” he told the Associated Press in 1988. “The State Department is still in the 19th century.”

He passed written and oral examinations. The National Federation of the Blind, where he served as an officer, filed a lawsuit on his behalf. But the State Department rebuffed his entreaties, citing long-standing personnel policies.

“You don’t ask a blind person to drive a bus or be a bank teller,” George S. Vest, the State Department personnel director, said in 1988, according to the New York Times. “There are jobs which are dangerous or unsuitable for them. And in the Foreign Service, we’re full of jobs like that.”

There was a widely held conviction that to be effective, Foreign Service officers needed to be able to spot the subtleties of nonverbal body language: winks, nods, raised eyebrows, rolling of the eyes, smiles, frowns, shoulder shrugs.

“No international treaty has ever been decided on the basis of a wink or a nod,” Mr. Rabby told the Times.

“I necessarily listen more than a sighted person would,” he said. “If I’m walking along a street, I can tell there is a building next to me because of the echoes of my feet or my cane. A blind person sees the world differently from a sighted person. Our impressions are no less valid.”

In 1989, Edward J. Perkins, the new director general of the Foreign Service and a former ambassador to South Africa, broke with tradition and directed the hiring of Mr. Rabby. He told a congressional committee that the Foreign Service had decided it could make accommodations for the blind, “just as we do for sighted people, based on what they can accomplish.”

This action came weeks after the Senate had passed the Americans With Disabilities Act, which broadened civil rights already protected in earlier legislation.

Mr. Rabby attended his Foreign Service orientation with one other blind person, Maryanne Masterson, a 13-year State Department employee who had been working in the visa services office and eventually held Foreign Service assignments in Asia, Europe and North America before retiring in 2012.

Masterson said she and Mr. Rabby remained friends throughout their careers. But they both encountered hostility from colleagues who “felt the Foreign Service should never have been opened to handicapped employees,” she said.

Mr. Rabby was posted to South Africa just after Nelson Mandela, the future president of the country, was being freed from prison. He served in Washington at the State Department’s Bureau of Human Rights. At the U.S. mission to the United Nations, he helped draft resolutions dealing with literacy, global health and disabled people.

His last Foreign Service posting was as political chief at the U.S. Embassy in Port-of-Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago, the dual-island Caribbean nation.

“I was his eyes,” Rhonda Singh, his reader and personal assistant in Port-of-Spain, wrote in an email. “He never allowed his disability to see the world deter him. . . . He was proud to have served as an FSO diplomat for the USA . . . to make persons who are challenged and visually impaired to improve their standard of life.”

Avraham Rabby was born in Tel Aviv on June 29, 1942, in what then was the British Mandate for Palestine. His father was a businessman, his mother a housewife. He suffered detached retinas in his eyes, causing him to lose his eyesight at the age of 8.

As a teenager, he went to a British boarding school for the blind, and then to Oxford. In 1969, received an MBA from the University of Chicago.

While living in Manhattan, he often liked to take visiting relatives from Israel on tandem bike tours — with Mr. Rabby pedaling in the rear seat, his visitors steering up front. He also was an enthusiastic coin collector who regularly attended numismatic conventions.

On his retirement, he moved from Washington back to Israel to be near his only survivor, a brother.

Read more Washington Post obituaries

Ruth B. Mandel, champion of women in politics, dies at 81

Joseph C. Wilson, diplomat caught in dispute over Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, dies at 69

‘Tex’ Harris, U.S. diplomat who exposed human rights abuses in Argentina, dies at 81