By Suzanne Wilson
While blindness and vision loss continue to present significant obstacles these days, there have been a great many improvements over the past few decades. For a child growing up in post-World War II America in the 1940s and ‘50s, prospects were quite limited. Just ask Massachusetts’ very own David Govostes. Today, we know him as a long-time Lowell resident and the former Massachusetts Commissioner for the Blind. However, David has worked hard to achieve his goals. His story is both a fascinating illustration of the recent history of blindness and a challenge to each and every one of us to excel.
Born and raised in Winchester as one of five brothers, David was diagnosed with a rare condition called juvenile macular degeneration. In spite of this, he believed himself to be fortunate in many ways. After all, his older brother was also blind and had blazed many trails for his younger sibling.
In those days, educational opportunities for blind children were sparse. Most of the time, kids with a wide range of disabilities were thrown together and expected to cope without the benefit of much specialized instruction. David describes the educators of the day as “just kind of caretakers for kids who had disabilities.”
Undaunted by lowered expectations and minimal opportunities, David seized control of his own education. Starting with the Sight Saving School in Malden and throughout his academic career, he took it upon himself to develop the tools that would enable him to succeed. Of course, the technology we now take for granted didn’t exist. Therefore, his mother became a reader for both visually impaired brothers. David jokes that she was the best-educated woman inMalden. After all, she had spent countless hours reading textbooks to both of her sons, ultimately supporting them as they obtained a total of three college degrees.
In spite of his success, David recalls that things were not always easy for him. As a visually impaired high school student, he sat in the front of the class in order to read what was on the blackboard, and was frequently bombarded with spitballs. In addition, he found math to be particularly challenging.
Nevertheless, he eventually graduated from Boston University and embarked on the job hunt. In 1963, David took and passed the state civil service exam to become a social worker. However, there were still many barriers hindering his success. “In those days, they didn’t want any part of you,” recounts David, recalling his frustrations as a talented applicant who also happened to be blind. Time and time again, he would get a call from an employer expressing an interest in hiring him. However, as soon as he divulged his vision difficulties, doors seemed to slam in his face.
In an early display of the assertive style that would ultimately carry him to the highest position in the Mass. Commission for the Blind, David brought his concerns to one of the supervisors. Why, he asked, was he not even getting the chance to receive an interview? His self-advocacy paid off, and within a few days, David was meeting with Eugene Fitzgerald, who was the Director of Lowell’s Welfare Department at the time. Not long after, David was offered a position as a social worker with the department. This experience formed the foundation for one of David’s most firmly held convictions. If he were to give just one piece of advice to a blind or visually impaired person seeking acceptance, opportunities, and/or employment, it would be this: “You’ve got to let people know about your blindness and disabilities in general. Let people know what you can do, what you can’t do, etc… Work with them and let them work with you.”
As the 1960’s drew to a close, David finally had the opportunity to set off on his career path. He married his fiancée and moved to Lowell to take the social work position, a job he held until 1976 when he accepted a job as a policy writer inBoston. Clearly, his talents were being noticed by those in positions of influence; just a year later in 1977, he was offered and accepted a job as Director of Medical Assistance.
In this capacity, David had a number of challenges. He worked hard to organize the unit, get staff on board, and to update many of the policies that badly needed revamping. “We did some incredible things in the time I was there,” he recounts with justifiable pride. “I got the reputation for being a very effective and efficient manager.”
So much so, in fact, that he was urged to apply for a Regional Director position that became available in the following year. Although he did not have a great deal of specific, relevant experience, he got the job. As a result, he was a Regional Director in Boston for the next seven years and then accepted a similar position in the Northeastern Region. In 1988, he was appointed as Assistant Commissioner for the Blind under Charlie Crawford.
Ten years later, David was called into Mr. Crawford’s office for a private meeting, during which he learned that the Commissioner for the Blind position was to become vacant. Mr. Crawford would soon be taking over as national President of the American Council for the Blind. In due course, David was appointed by Governor Paul Salucci in November of 1998 to be the next Massachusetts Commissioner for the Blind.
Over the next seven years, David would serve under four governors. “I enjoyed working for all of them. But you don’t really work for the governor; you work for the Secretary of Human Services,” he explains. “I enjoyed all of my days as the Commissioner and all of the interactions I had, with the exception of the last Secretary of Human Services, who failed to re-appoint me.”
The Commission for the Blind had evolved tremendously since its humble beginnings when Helen Keller was an original member of the Advisory Board. In the beginning, it was housed in a colonial building on Newbury Street and boasted a staff of just ten. Its budget was small. Mainly, the Commission helped small towns pay for large print educational materials for blind children and provided financial help for visually impaired college students. Under the direction of Commissioner John Mungolven and with the help of Father John Carroll, another revered pioneer in the blindness field in our state, programs such as social and vocational rehabilitation, medical assistance, and children’s services were initiated.
As Massachusetts Commissioner for the Blind, David continued to carry out his predecessors’ commitment to the blind and visually impaired clients he served. In particular, David is proud that he was able to keep all of the blindness-related services integrated under one agency. Furthermore, he celebrates the advances made under his watch that helped the deaf-blind and “turning 22” populations. Clients who were deaf-blind or developmentally delayed would receive federal Special Education funding until their 22nd birthday, but got no help after that time. David worked hard to correct this situation, and ultimately succeeded in persuading the Department of Public Welfare to support this population’s needs under the Medical Assistance waiver program.
Another of David’s major accomplishments is his role in funding the Talking Information Center, a program very near and dear to our hearts here at the LAB. He and a colleague were responsible for reviewing the request for proposal for the original grant to set up the program. That first budget was a meager $28,000, but it formed the foundation for the vital information program we have to this day. Throughout his tenure as Commissioner, David hosted a bi-weekly radio program in which he discussed current issues involving his agency.
David enjoyed many aspects of his time as Commissioner, but found certain activities to be particularly rewarding: “The things I used to look forward to were… to attend what they called the Senior Connection… They have these self-help groups all over the state. They’re elderly blind people and they meet on a monthly basis and they share… and they have invited guests. Every year, they have a celebration… funded by the grant money that they get through the feds. They have… booths with technology providers and guest speakers and… usually someone from the ophthalmological community to discuss research in blindness… and a luncheon and a sing-along. They have a wonderful time.” On one occasion, a well-to-do client even paid for a stretch limousine to transport a number of people to the event.
In addition to these activities, David also was very enthusiastic about the Carroll Awards, an annual event which recognizes outstanding blind employees and those for whom they work. He also looks back fondly on his visits to the eight children’s programs that the Commission sponsored throughout the state.
Although he is retired from his position as Commissioner for the Blind, David continues to be an active and vocal participant in the community he served for so many years. His decades of commitment and hard work have earned him the respect of people from all walks of life across our state. Although David no longer holds a gubernatorial appointment, he continues to act as an inspiring role model. When asked what advice he would give to someone who is newly blind or visually impaired, he offers the following: “Don’t lose hope. There’s an awful lot going on in the world of blindness… with stem cell research and various other types of things, medications, surgeries… And the world of technology has really opened up. And I would say to people to just be encouraged by the progress that has been made over the years, the people who are involved who are interested in your day-to-day lives and your future who will continue to dedicate themselves… to providing the best services.”
And even though he no longer actively works for the Commission for the Blind, David continues to be one of its most passionate spokespeople: “All you really need to have is one blind person in the family to appreciate the Commission for the Blind,” he says, particularly pleased about the warmth, friendliness and compassion of the staff. He adds that workers come right to a client’s home where he or she feels most comfortable, making transition to life with a disability much easier.
Whether he is recounting his boyhood in a family of active boys, his academic struggles and triumphs, or his far-flung experiences as an advocate for his community, one theme remains clear: David Govostes truly has made a difference for blind and visually impaired Massachusetts residents. Although we can’t exactly call him a native son of Lowell, we’re proud to adopt him as one of the key members of our family here in the Mill City and at the Lowell Association for the Blind. Keep up the great work, David!