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Ohio University professor named Blind Educator of the Year

By Erin Roberts

Ohio University faculty member J.W. Smith, an associate professor in the School of Communication Studies, has been named the Blind Educator of the Year by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). He accepted the award during the recent annual NFB convention in Atlanta, Ga.

Ohio University's J.W. Smith was named Blind Educator of the YearA member of the organization since 1990, Smith credits the NFB for "changing [his] life forever" and says being named the Blind Educator of the Year is the greatest award he's ever received. An educator for more than 20 years, Smith earned his bachelor's degree in history and speech from Indiana University, his master's degree in speech from Purdue University, and his doctorate in communication from Wayne State University. He has been a faculty member at Ohio University since 1993.

Smith joined the NFB on invitation from the late Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, a pioneer for blind rights in Iowa and an NFB leader for 40 years. It is with awe that Smith describes the first NFB conference he attended in Charlotte, N.C. in 1992.

"It was so good to be in the majority for once," Smith says, noting there were 2,500 blind people at the convention. "It was unbelievable."

Smith says he had a great life before joining NFB but that the organization has provided him with an academic and collegial family.

"Going to NFB showed me all these things that could be possible," he says. "It completed me, and gave me a sense of purpose."

Since that time, Smith has taken on roles of leadership within the organization, serving first as secretary and now as second vice president of the National Association of Blind Educators, an NFB interest group. Shortly after moving to Southeastern Ohio, Smith saw the need for a NFB group in the region. On Feb. 19, 1994, the group became a reality with Smith at the root. The Southeast Ohio chapter of the NFB now has 20 members.

Smith says while he doesn't shy away from his blindness, he doesn't let it define him either. He cites control, confidence and competence as the "three C's of teaching."

"When you display these things, immediately you go from being the blind professor to the professor who is blind," he says.

Smith admits there are special challenges to being a blind educator, such as training students away from such traditional classroom behaviors as raising their hands, but also notes the opportunity to approach lessons from a different angle.

"Being blind allows me to focus on things in a certain way."

As for his most recent accomplishment, Smith is indeed humble.

"I've gotten a few awards in my life and I could take them or leave them," he confides. "But this one means the world to me. It is so monumental because it comes from the organization and is not given lightly."

Smith, who is also a minister, singer, recording artist and composer - not to mention a husband and father - considers himself a very lucky man.

"I've been blessed with a lot of things, and my task now is to give back," he says, stating only three in ten blind people are gainfully employed. "To whom much is given, much is required."

Greg Shepherd, director of the university's School of Communication Studies, says Smith has been giving back for years.

"J.W. is a tremendous educator in both the broadest and deepest senses of that term," Shepherd says. "He is a very effective classroom teacher, but also a wonderful advisor. He teaches a wide range of courses, from the conceptual and theoretical to the practical and applied, with considerable skill. Most importantly, Professor Smith touches students' lives deep down, where it matters most. Students are changed for the better as a result of their contact with J.W."

As evidenced in his NFB Educator of the Year application packet, which included copies of student evaluations from Smith's Tier III "Black Communication Styles" class, many students agree with Shepherd's comments.

"Dr. Smith is an amazing speaker and professor." wrote one student. "I cannot praise this course or Dr. Smith enough."

College of Communication Dean Kathy Krendl says, "We're very proud of J.W.'s achievements and the national recognition this award brings to his contributions in the field. He's a constant inspiration to students."

Shepherd considers Smith a true asset to the team of educators in the School and is absolutely convinced of his honored status as the 2004 Blind Educator of the Year.

"Dr. Smith is unusually compassionate in his dealings with students; he demonstrates intelligence, knowledge, humor and easy grace as a teacher and colleague," Shepherd says. "Students, through their interactions with J.W., come to appreciate talents and differences in very deep and meaningful ways. He is a wonderful human being, very, very deserving of this most high honor. We are thrilled, and proud."

Smith resides in Athens with his wife of 18 years, Regina, and his two children: Ebony, 14; and Joshelyn, 10.

"I remember the first time I walked into a classroom as a teaching assistant at Purdue," Smith says. "I was scared to death. I still remember that, like a first love. If that experience had gone badly, who knows?"

Twenty-some years later, an accomplished educator reflects.

"Teaching is not a job to me," Smith says. "It is a dream come true."

Erin Roberts is external relations coordinator for the College of Communication.

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