Remembering Leaders
in the Field of Blindness and Visual Impairment

Stephen Barrett
President of Blind & Vision Rehabilitation Services of Pittsburgh

June 28, 1949 - April 17, 2010

Friday, April 23, 2010
By Ann Rodgers, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Stephen Barrett, who started visionary programs to help those who had lost their sight and hearing to live self-reliant, rewarding lives, died Saturday of esophageal cancer. The recently retired president and CEO of Blind & Vision Rehabilitation Services of Pittsburgh was 60.

"He was a creator, someone who could envision what services needed to be in place," said C.C. Davis, who had worked with him at the Helen Keller National Center.

Mr. Barrett once told him that he wanted to be a symphony conductor.

"But it was always my feeling that he was writing a symphony. Those of us who are providers in the field were players in the orchestra. We just tried to perform and interpret his wishes as best we could," he said.

The Texas native had just graduated from the University of North Texas in Denton when he met the love of his life in a Dairy Queen. Seeking a job so that they could afford to get married, he went to a state employment office. It sent him to the Texas Commission for the Blind, which hired him to go to the homes of blind people to teach daily living skills, such as cooking.

"It was something he wanted to try and, when he did, he fell madly in love with it," said Bobbie Barrett, his wife of 37 years.

In 1975, he was hired as a regional representative for the Helen Keller National Center, which is based in New York and serves people who are both blind and deaf. He rose through its ranks to become executive director.

While he was its representative in Texas and surrounding states, he worked to move deaf and blind people out of large institutions, either to live with their families or in small group homes. He set up family training programs to help their relatives, established some group homes and started a camp that is still going strong, Mr. Davis said.

"He took on hard challenges. When other people felt they couldn't work successfully with people with dual challenges, Steve was there to teach them how to do it and encourage them to be successful at it," said Richard Welsh, his predecessor at Blind & Vision Rehabilitation Services of Pittsburgh, who knew him professionally and recruited Mr. Barrett to succeed him.

He continued innovating as executive director of the Helen Keller National Center. One landmark program, called the Affiliate Network, trained local professionals to respond to those in need of deaf-blind services so that families wouldn't have to wait weeks for an appointment with a Helen Keller regional representative. Another of his initiatives, now known as the National Family Association for the Deaf-Blind, began as a support group for parents and offers an annual conference for families.

In 1990, Mr. Barrett left the Helen Keller center to become executive director of the Pinellas Center for the Visually Impaired in Largo, Fla. But he always had an urge to go to Alaska. After a decade in Florida, he took a sabbatical in the form of a two-year contract to work on child abuse prevention in Anchorage, Alaska. He continued that work for another two years in Texas but missed working with blind people. That's when Mr. Welsh recruited him to come to Pittsburgh.

Blind & Vision Rehabilitation Services was formed from the 1997 merger of the Greater Pittsburgh Guild for the Blind and the Pittsburgh Blind Association. But when Mr. Barrett arrived in September 2003, it was still divided between two offices. He moved the whole organization into a former hospital in Homestead, where it runs its signature residential programs to help blind people learn skills for daily living and employment.

"He had a very quiet but effective leadership style," said Tom Buchanan, an attorney and chairman of the board of Blind & Vision Rehabilitation Services. "Steve wasn't a table pounder or one to give fiery motivational speeches. He tended to roll up his sleeves and work shoulder to shoulder with his managers."

The project closest to his heart was an effort to start an employment training program for deaf-blind people, with coaching on everything from how to dress for success to how to travel safely to and from work. Former funding sources had dried up, and he spent years pursuing grants, continuing to work despite a cancer diagnosis three years ago.

Last year the agency made a pitch to Pennsylvania to use federal stimulus money for the deaf-blind program. Mr. Barrett's illness forced him to retire in February, but his co-workers were able to tell him that the funding had been approved before his death.

He had been scheduled to speak about that program this week at an annual conference for those who work in deaf-blind rehabilitation. Cynthia Ingraham, the regional representative for the Helen Keller center, which is collaborating on the program, gave the talk for him. He was so widely known for his work with deaf-blind people that everyone at the conference mourned his death, she said.

"There will be a great void in this field, but we'll try to fill it," Ms. Ingraham said.

He is survived by his wife, Bobbie, of Coraopolis; two daughters, Heather Barrett of Dallas, Texas, and Jennifer Tamol of Jacksonville, Fla.; two brothers, Edward of Pratt, Kan., and David of Philadelphia; and two sisters, Frances Ann Coleman of Silverhill, Ala., and Mary Barrett of Shreveport, La.

A Mass was celebrated Wednesday in Wylie, Texas. Gifts may be made to Blind & Vision Rehabilitation Services of Pittsburgh, 1800 West St., Homestead, PA 15120.

Ann Rodgers: arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.

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First published on April 23, 2010 at 12:00 am