Amy Ruell was born in 1954 to Kenneth and Gloria Ruell. She is the only blind child in her family. To her family blindness was unexpected, but much was expected of Amy. While growing up in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, she had little contact with blind people, the exception being through a camp for the blind she attended as a child. She was educated in public school, but as too frequently happens today, she received minimal instruction in cane travel and no formal professional instruction in Braille. She learned it with the help of her mother and a volunteer, both staying a lesson ahead of her as the instruction proceeded. Luckily for her, the study was intense and thorough. Amy has a mastery of Braille that helps make her a top performer in her field. She feels that, in some ways, the lack of professional instruction forced her to learn invaluable problem-solving skills as she worked with her teachers to adapt her curriculum while ensuring that the same level of competence was expected of her as of her peers.
She obtained bachelor of arts and master of science degrees from Smith College and Simmons College School of Social Work respectively and has been successfully employed as a therapist, supervisor, and, most recently, as a clinical care manager authorizing psychiatric emergency admissions. “I have a time-consuming and sometimes stressful job, but busy is a part of who I am, and making positive contributions to the lives of others is one of my core values.”
As part of her normal life experience, Amy is both a wife and mother. She is married to Jim, and they are the proud parents of two children, Steven and Sheila.
Amy discovered the Federation when her job as the literacy program manager for an initiative at National Braille Press required that she attend the conventions of several national organizations of the blind. At the NFB’s gathering she found people doing things for themselves and at the same time helping others get around the hotel, read menus, and do so many other things in a wonderful spirit of mentorship and cooperation. “I told my husband that I was going to join but that I was not going to become a leader. I already held enough leadership positions. But when I attended my first affiliate convention, I didn’t like it. I was bored, I was frustrated, and I felt like I had wasted my money. Now I am the kind of person who, if I don’t like something, I feel as though I have to change it. I either need to leave it behind or do something about it. So I decided that I would take on the job of planning the next convention and making it better. I asked for and got the job. At the convention that I organized, attendance increased by 20 percent, and I got a lot of accolades for the job I did. So as I looked at the organization, I realized I had two choices: to lead or to shut up, and I concluded that leading was a task more suited to my character and temperament.
“The decision did not come easily. I was already involved with a number of organizations, and I take my involvement very seriously. When I say I will do something, I know it will take precious time that I do not have in abundance, but I do it. This means I do not easily say yes, but when I do, you can count on me to follow through.”
For Amy there was first an investment of the head: the broad advocacy, the systemic change, but later there was the investment of the heart and seeing how much her personal involvement could change one life and then two. That first personal involvement came when a young man needed rehabilitation that had been denied by the agency. After gathering a lot of information about him, determining the options he should have, and capitalizing on her working relationship with the head of the state agency, she got the young man training. “He went to BLIND Incorporated and was transformed from somebody who really couldn’t find his way anywhere to somebody who is now working part-time, going to school, living on his own in his own apartment, and going everywhere on busses totally independently. I have had a couple of situations that are similar in scope and outcome, and for me that is the reward. Despite all of the advances, I think there are a lot of young people who are struggling and who could learn from some of us older folks who have had to learn to do things more independently and who have had to use our own creativity rather than having a prescribed program. This ability to work with some students and see real growth is the kind of reward that keeps me going when I have no energy and I’m really wanting to go watch the Boston Red Sox, go to a concert, or finish reading the book I’m in the middle of.”
Amy says she struggles with where to put our focus and recognition. Like most groups we focus on those of high achievement: our scholarship winners, the innovators, those with excellent attitudes, and the skills that spring from them. But sometimes she thinks that this helps to reinforce the stereotype that we are amazing. How can we instead emphasize that if you are blind and doing normal things, it is because blindness doesn’t make you abnormal. She observes that being the pitiable blind person and the amazing blind person are just opposite sides of the same coin. “I think we do ourselves a disservice in two ways: there are a lot of people who feel distanced from us and who feel like the NFB is very elitist, and to some extent, when we just feature folks in certain categories, we unwittingly contribute to that stereotype. I also think that for some people who are in the group that is featured, they begin to believe that somehow they are amazing as blind people, and they feed into that stereotype that society gives them. This too does blind people a disservice.”
Amy relates that at one of her jobs she was the spokesman for Braille literacy: traveling throughout the country making speeches, staying in fine hotels, and enjoying good meals. At the same time that she was doing this, she knew that the people producing the Braille she was promoting had jobs that were much harder than hers—people who trudged in during a snowstorm and were there by 7 a.m., stood on their feet all day, got paid far less than she did, seldom got a word of praise, and certainly never got the pay or recognition she did for promoting literacy and the essential role of Braille.
Amy says, “So one of the things I’ve tried to do in the NFB is make sure that other people who don’t have the same abilities I do and that many people find most impressive still have a way to know that they are important and to feel what those of us who so easily are considered important feel. I look for people who may not be able to do the jobs I do but who still do jobs that are essential to our organization. I work to help figure out what they can do and see that they are acknowledged for it, and I think this does as much or more than showing them examples of people they will never be like and expecting them to do what those people do.” Amy believes that one of the biggest challenges we face as an organization is the way to include and meet the needs of the increasing number of people with multiple disabilities in the United States.Amy was elected as the vice president of the Massachusetts affiliate shortly after joining the NFB and also has served as the vice president of the Cambridge chapter. She was unanimously elected to the National Federation of the Blind Board of Directors in 2017. “My biggest challenge is that I take seriously everything I commit to do. I don’t say yes easily, but when I do, I want people to know that I will follow through. My challenge is how to do all the work of an affiliate president, a board member, and a very busy professional, and still have some time for me. I would rather work for change than complain about it, and all of my jobs in the Federation give me the opportunity to be a part of that change.”