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Greater New York Council of the Blind

A chapter of the American Council of the Blind of New York; An affiliate of the American Council of the Blind

Interview with Dr. Karen Gourgey
Interviewer: Suvro Banerjee

Photo of Dr. Karen Gourgey standing at a podium addressing the audience. Photo of Dr. Karen Gourgey standing at a podium addressing the audience.

Dr. Karen Gourgey has been an active member of GNYCB for many years, serving as President for one term. Her educational background is equally impressive. She received her bachelor's degree from Oberlin College in Ohio, then received her master’s degree from NYU. After that, Karen went to northern California, where she taught high school English for three years and then returned to New York, where she received her Doctorate in Education of the Visually Handicapped from Columbia Teachers College.

Karen has been advocating for the civil rights of the blind and visually impaired, beginning when she started her graduate work at NYU in 1969. To illustrate what motivated her to become an advocate, she spoke of an incident that occurred while she was a freshman at Oberlin College. A biology professor refused to allow her to participate in the lab. Feeling that she was unable to change this situation, she cried. Then, in 1969, when she started her graduate work at NYU, Karen was refused membership in a health club. This time, she took her case to the New York City Commission on Human Rights and won. Another example that triggered her advocacy occurred after an accident on a subway platform due to the lack of a detectable warning surface. These incidents greatly affected her life and sparked the confidence to fight, making her the advocate she is today. Thus began a rich history of advocating for the rights of the blind and visually impaired.

Her lifelong passion has been her commitment to the principle that all people with vision loss deserve and can have equal access to written information and information describing their environment. In 1977, she visited Baruch College and learned what some pioneering professors were dreaming of for blind and low vision people. She took a course at Baruch that summer and learned that because the computer had as its basic output 0’s and 1’s, it should be possible to take those and create any form needed by your customer or user, from braille, to synthetic speech, and from enlarged print, to tactile graphics.  This truth has empowered both Karen’s work and her advocacy to the present day. Baruch College established a Computer Center for Visually Impaired People, which Karen directed from 1983 to 2018. Under her direction, the Center worked tirelessly to inform the blind community and New York City at large as to the revolutionary possibilities for empowerment that computer technology offered to people who were blind or who had low vision. Accomplishments included With her passion and determination, she has been one of the many people who have advocated for issues such as accessible pedestrian signals. As the original Chair of the Pedestrians for Accessible and Safe Streets (PASS Coalition), she has been steadfast in working on the legislative issues that affect our community. She continues to work with ACBNY in its efforts to settle the lawsuit regarding accessible pedestrian signals.

When asked what she believes to be the biggest issues we face as blind and visually impaired people, she replied, “People’s attitudes in general. Also not having more of our community represented in organizations that decide what we get and don’t get needs to change. Being told it’s too expensive is another hurdle we must deal with in our advocacy fight."

As a final point, Karen has offered some advice for us all: If we want to change what’s wrong, we must begin the fight. Just because we are blind or visually impaired doesn’t mean we can’t be advocates for change. We all want to be as independent as possible, but in order for that to happen we have to seek out the help we need in order to gain the skills we want, and to also be humble enough to acknowledge when we need help.

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