Thursday, April 26, 2012

Life Changer - Joel West Smith

We don't often know or appreciate how events or actions in our lives impact others. The work of one East Hampton native, Joel West Smith, had a life changing impact on thousands, one being a young lady from Alabama, Helen Keller.  At the age of 2, Helen fell ill and was struck blind, deaf and mute. Blinded himself in 1860 at the age of 23 during a July 4th celebration by a prematurely exploding cannon, Smith started a remarkable career by entering the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston. His exposure to other sightless people awakened his ambitions for a life of achievement and drove from his mind the fear of a helpless existence. Within 6 years he rose to a supervisory position; later assisted in the administration of the London Academy of Music for the Blind and went on to help found the Royal College for the Blind in England. In 1872, Smith began a European tour to study teaching methods in schools for the blind, concentrating on methods used by the blind to repair and tune pianos, which became an important vocation.

Smith also developed of an improved system of Braille writing which simplified and made far less tedious the reading and writing by the sightless. He invented the first typewriter for Braille "letters" and helped found, and later managed and published The Mentor, the first magazine for the blind in America. During Smith's management of The Mentor, Helen Keller was inspired to learn to speak, an accomplishment which, according to Ms Keller's teacher Anne Sullivan, "singly justified its existence." 

Remembered by few today, Joel West Smith's indomitable spirit has served an inspiration to thousands and impacted us all in ways unimaginable 100 years ago thorough enactment of legislation such as American's with Disabilities Act. 

His family home is now Spencer Funeral Home on Main Street. He lies today in Lakeview Cemetery amongst the many great men and women who founded our Town and contributed their talents to make a better world.

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