Joyce Eileen Scanlan could not get a teaching job in Minnesota when she moved to the state in the 1970s. She had been teaching English and Latin for years in North Dakota and Montana, but schools in Minnesota would not hire her because she was blind, said her husband, Tom Scanlan.
"They'd ask, 'How would you find your way around the school and how would you find the bathroom?' " he said.
So she took up a job proofreading Braille and spent much of the rest of her life as an advocate and champion for the blind, leading the charge to add disability protections to the Minnesota Human Rights Act and to require the teaching of Braille in public schools.
Scanlan died in her sleep Dec. 29 at age 85.
Scanlan is remembered, first, for her laugh. She laughed so easily and often, Tom Scanlan said: "She was a happy person."
She loved to cook and bake her way through the nearly 5,000 recipes she kept in Braille, including a stew for St. Patrick's Day and a chili for her students. She loved to play Scrabble, read histories and biographies, entertain her friends and host New Year's Eve parties. She traveled abroad and around the country, making it to every state except Alaska.
She especially like historical tours, traveling to Williamsburg, Va., and Washington, D.C. During their honeymoon, she and her husband took a tour of the White House, and the guide lifted the rope to one of the bedrooms so the two could walk in and examine it.
"She said, 'There's a lot of dust on these things,' " Tom Scanlan said.
Born in Fargo, Scanlan graduated from the University of North Dakota in 1957. She made it her mission to ensure that blind people be in charge of their own lives and be treated with respect, speaking as an expert to Congress and to state lawmakers on ways to improve laws and services for the blind.
She and her husband met at a convention in Minneapolis, where they would live the rest of their life together. In 1973, she was elected president of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota. She served in the role for the next 34 years.
For decades, blind people had little, if any, control or leadership within many of the organizations and centers that were supposed to represent and speak for blind people, said Tom Scanlan, who is also blind. "Instead of treating blind people as capable and able to make our own decisions or speak about what we really needed, they just treated us as patients," he said.
But that changed, largely because of the work of people like his wife.
In the early 1970s, Scanlan successfully pushed state lawmakers to add disabilities to the Minnesota Human Rights Act and enact the state's Braille bill.
In 1986, she founded BLIND Inc., a Minneapolis training center that teaches blind people how to read Braille, use white canes, cook, work with computers and reading software, and other skills needed to be independent. She led the organization as its executive director until her retirement in 2003. Even after her retirement she continued to take calls from people who needed help, especially from people who didn't know where to begin when their elderly spouses or parents were losing their vision.
For nearly the entire time Scanlan served as president of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota, her husband was also elected the organization's treasurer.
"We were a team," he said.
She is survived by her husband of 46 years, her sister, Marilyn Calvert, and her brother, Ken Hoffa. Because of the pandemic, services will be held at a later date.
Greg Stanley • 612-673-4882