Joyce Eileen Scanlan drew on her own experiences with blindness and disability-based discrimination to champion the rights of others. Described as “able, tough and determined,” she led in state and federal legislative efforts and worked tirelessly to provide needed services for people with visual disabilities. She was a force in helping people with visual disabilities to be able to live full, independent lives.
Scanlan, 89, died December 29, 2020. She may best be remembered as the founder and longtime leader of BLIND, Inc. and for her longtime leadership of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and NFB – Minnesota. She and her husband Tom worked tirelessly as a team on issues for many years.
Born in Fargo in 1939, Scanlan received her elementary and secondary education at the North Dakota School for the Blind. Her strong love of reading and theater inspired her to earn a B.A. in English and history and a master’s degree in English at the University of North Dakota. She taught those subjects at North Dakota and Montana high schools.
In an interview, Scanlan described how glaucoma took the rest of her vision. She lost her self-confidence and said, “I quickly fled from the job because I had never known a blind teacher in a public school, and I had had such a struggle those last few weeks in the classroom that I was positive no blind person could ever teach sighted children.”
In 1970 the NFB convention was in Minneapolis, so she attended the meeting of the NFB Teachers Division. She met many teachers there who were blind. “In fact, I met blind people from all over the country who were engaged in a great variety of occupations. I learned what the NFB was all about and realized what blind people working together could do.”
At that convention she met Tom Scanlan, whom she married four years later. But when she moved to Minnesota before her marriage, schools wouldn’t hire her to teach.
Scanlan then became a force for change. She took a job proofreading Braille. More importantly she devoted much of her time to advocacy for people with visual disabilities.
Scanlan worked to add disability protections to the Minnesota Human Rights Act. She also was deeply involved in calling for requirements to teach Braille in public schools.
She was active in many levels of NFB-Minnesota. In 1971 she organized a statewide NFB student division. She became NFB-Minnesota vice-president in 1972 and president from 1973-2007. During that same time her husband Tom, who is also blind, was the organization’s treasurer
At the national level, she also served on the NFB Board from 1974-2004. That work included terms as secretary and first vice president. The federation made a great difference in her life, and she was dedicated to its work.
One of her greatest accomplishments was working through NFB-Minnesota to establish and serves as executive director for a rehabilitation center for the adult blind. BLIND, Inc. (Blindness: Learning In New Dimensions) admitted its first class, consisting of two students, in January of 1988.
The Minneapolis training center teaches clients how to read Braille, use white canes, cook, work with computers and reading software, and develop other skills needed to be independent. She retired as BLIND, Inc. leader in 2003. But she never stopped helping people.
In the 1970s she joined the newly created Minnesota Council on Disabilities. She spent many years on an advisory council for State Services for the Blind, and worked to have that state function move from the Department of Public Welfare to the Department of Jobs and Training. Scanlan also served on many boards involved with visual disabilities, and was a recognized expert at the state and federal levels. She authored articles on blindness.
But she is also remembered for having a good sense of humor, and loving to laugh and for her enjoyment of cooking and baking. She kept almost 5,000 recipes, all in Braille. She loved to read, play Scrabble, read histories and biographies, travel and entertain.
Scanlan is survived by her husband of 46 years, a sister, a brother and many nieces and nephews. Services will be held at a later date. Memorials are preferred to the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota.