The call came out of the blue. “I had the woman repeat it four times on the phone, I was so shocked,” said Guttenberg resident Myra Brodsky. The caller assured her that it was true: Brodsky had been named Braille Student of the Year by the Hadley School for the Blind, a free, nonprofit school serving more than 10,000 students annually in all 50 states and 100 countries, and the world’s largest educator of Braille.
Earlier this month Brodsky found herself in Chicago where she accepted the award and gave a speech. It wasn’t the first time she was celebrated for her accomplishments. The New Jersey Department of Rehabilitation’s Commission for the Blind voted her one of their most successful cases when she was working as a court reporter in New York State some years ago.
At the time Brodsky was the only blind court reporter in the U.S. assigned to a courtroom.
It didn’t begin that way. Brodsky did not lose her vision until later in life. Born in New York 74 years ago, she kicked around a number of jobs including receptionist at the William Morris Agency and legal secretary, all while going to school at night in the 1960s. Eventually she settled on becoming a court reporter.
“The whole thing appealed to me, the idea of being in a courtroom,” she said. “I thought a court reporter is like the center of attention. You have to read back [the testimony] so it’s entertaining and exciting.”
Her first position was in the workers compensation area, before transferring to family court and eventually to the attorney general’s office, where she worked for 18 years.
Losing her sight almost led to her losing her job, but Brodsky fought back and won a position as the only blind court reporter in a U.S. courtroom.
While working for the attorney general’s office she received the news that changed her life. “I was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa and I didn’t know what it was,” she said. “But the doctor that diagnosed me didn’t charge for that visit so I thought, ‘Oh my God, he feels sorry for me, it must be a terrible disease.’”
That was in 1980. “I went to Johns Hopkins for a second opinion,” she said. “They said there’s no cure, no help.”
When Brodsky told her supervisor that she was going blind, the supervisor urged her to go on Social Security Disability. “I said, ‘No, I’m too young, I want to keep working,’” recalled Brodsky. “I could still do my court reporting regularly with bright lights and very high magnification.”
And then things got wonky.
Fighting for her job
“They tried to eliminate my job around 1994,” recalled Brodsky. It was part of a purge by a new administration that wanted to outsource the bulk of the court reporting operation.
Brodsky wasn’t about to go, and fought back, taking the battle to Albany. Luckily for her the Americans with Disabilities Act had been signed into law in 1990, giving her a measure of protection.
As a result the administration created a new, diminished position for her, “as long as I could get a computer that would do my court reporting like everyone else.”
With that in mind, Brodsky got in touch with the New Jersey Department of Rehabilitation’s Commission for the Blind. They helped put together a team to keep Brodsky in business.
“That’s where I met Kay Chase,” said Brodsky. “She was completely blind. She learned how to do court reporting to develop a computer method to do it. She’s a genius and she devised a computer that would work the same way as everyone else’s and be compatible to their court reporting system.”
As a test the administration put Brodsky in a courtroom with a non-blind reporter and had her compete to prove herself. With the backing of her team, Brodsky was able to impress the brass, and found herself transferred back to workers compensation in 1997.
A busy retirement
Brodsky and her husband, who passed away in 1993, were the second family to move into the Galaxy Towers in 1975, before the second and third tower were even built. She lives today in a different apartment in the same complex.
Among the testimonies she took after fighting to keep her job were the widow of Daniel Pearl, the American journalist kidnapped and beheaded in Pakistan. She also recorded claims filed by many relatives of 9/11 victims. Brodsky herself had worked in the World Trade Center while in the attorney general’s employ until 1997, and she was in her office in Brooklyn, facing the towers, on the day of the terrorist attacks.
“I got to my desk and we heard the big bang and everyone ran to the window,” she said. “We heard everything, smelled everything. My coworkers saw the people falling out the windows.”
Brodsky retired in 2007 after getting a guide dog. “Walking the dog in the morning and getting to work by 8:30 in Brooklyn, I couldn’t handle that,” she said.
She has continued to remain active, swimming and taking aerobics courses regularly. Four years ago, at age 70, she entered the State Senior Olympics and took home three gold medals for swimming.
In her retirement she also found a new career in art education for the blind. She has worked in this capacity at numerous galleries and museums, including MOMA and the Guggenheim. Her role consists of listening to descriptions of artworks, then questioning the descriptions and crafting her own picture of the artwork in words.
“They describe it in detail and then I tell them if I know what the artwork looks like” she said. “If they use a word that’s not clear I point it out and in my own words I say what they said. The goal is to make art accessible to the blind. It’s very, very cool.”
It was also after retiring that Brodsky decided to learn Braille and enrolled in the Hadley School in 2007. “It’s really wonderful,” she said. “The courses are fabulous. I found it so simple to learn Braille through Hadley, the way it was laid out.”
Learning at her own pace, Brodsky had no idea she was excelling in her courses. Hence her surprise at learning she had been named Braille Student of the Year. She has since taken numerous other courses at the school, which offers a varied curriculum.
Founded in 1920, The Hadley School for the Blind is funded entirely through contributions from individuals, foundations and corporations. Their mission is to promote independent living through lifelong, distance education programs for people who are blind or visually impaired, as well as their families and blindness service providers. For more information visit hadley.edu or call (800) 323-4238.
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.