Eileen O’Brien came to the Federation in 1975. She felt passionately about educating everyone, blind and sighted alike, about blindness and diabetes. She felt strongly that blind people should be able to draw up their own insulin and that all of us should know that it was possible. She also attended what is now ICREWOOD. She complained bitterly about the food service which prepared meals not appropriate for the dietary needs of people with diabetes. She was a tenacious activist for years.
In 1993, NFBI established the Eileen O’Brien Memorial Award. It honors officials outside the Federation, whose outstanding accomplishments and contributions have brought about substantive improvements in the lives of blind people.
The National Federation of the Blind of Illinois has given only three Eileen O’Brien Memorial Awards:
- In 1993, to Senator John Cullerton for his leadership and support of several state legislative initiatives important to blind people.;
- In 1996, to Neil Kelley who was instrumental in getting the Illinois State Library to support NFB-NEWSLINE®.
- In 2014, to Janet Sherburn for her work in the Bureau of Blind Services.
Now in 2020 for only the fourth time we award the Eileen O’Brien award to someone who has given a large part of her professional life to serving the blind. Her credentials are indeed impressive. She is a highly respected researcher and scientist. She is a graduate of Brown and Fordham universities. She has published more than 100 one-hundred academic papers. She came to her present position in 2008 as only the second woman to head this 110-year-old institution.
We present this award in 2020 to someone who more than anything else is willing to listen to the voice of and partner with the organized blind. I want to share that my first conversation with her began by my telling her that I wanted a blind person to hold her position. Her reaction was telling and I will not forget it. She understood. Despite that beginning – I am not known for holding back– – I believe we have developed a friendship and I know that she genuinely believes in our capacity and works to foster independence of people with disabilities. This individual has, among other things, hosted our Chicago Braille enrichment for Literacy and Learning Academy free of charge. We are partnering around other initiatives now. Under her leadership the Chicago Lighthouse has expanded including the addition of customer service centers employing more than two hundred PWDs and veterans. I could go on and on about her accomplishments. They are many. We will post her bio on our web page.
She answers the call when we ask. The 2020 Eileen O’Brien award goes to Dr. Janet Szlyk, President and Executive Director of the Chicago Lighthouse.
Dr. Janet Szlyk
A highly respected researcher and scientist in the field of low vision, Dr. Janet Szlyk assumed leadership of The Lighthouse in 2008, becoming the second woman in the organization’s 110-¬year history to hold the top position. She is responsible for taking The Lighthouse to new heights with the establishment of a customer service enterprise, which provides employment opportunities for more than 200 individuals who are blind, visually impaired, disabled and Veterans. The social service enterprise provides the financial support for the 40 programs and services in the areas of rehabilitation, education and employment. In addition to building the customer service enterprise, Dr. Szlyk is credited for establishing The Sandy & Rick Forsythe Center for Comprehensive Vision Care, the Sandy Forsythe Assistive Technology Center, The Pangere Center for Inherited Retinal Diseases, The Beatrice Cummings Mayer Senior Center, the Judy and Ray McCaskey Preschool and The Chicago Lighthouse North serving the Northern Suburbs. The Lighthouse is expected to break ground in late 2021 on a new condominium building on their campus providing accessible and integrated housing for people who are blind.
Before joining The Lighthouse, Dr. Szlyk served as Professor and Director of the Low Vision Research Laboratory in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, as well as serving as a Professor in the Psychology and Bioengineering Departments. During that time, she was also a Research Career Scientist within the U.S. Veterans Affairs Rehabilitation Research & Development Service. She currently maintains an Adjunct Professor appointment of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at UIC. Though her laboratory has moved to The Chicago Lighthouse, her research is still focused on cutting edge rehabilitation strategies. She also serves as a consultant on the Food and Drug Administration’s Ophthalmic Devices and Gene Therapy panels, and reviews grants for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Science Foundation. She has more than 100 publications in the field of low vision covering topics as broad as subtyping inherited retinal disease with psychophysical methods to functional brain imaging in patients with age-related macular degeneration. Dr. Szlyk earned a Bachelor of Arts at Brown University, a doctorate at Fordham University, and completed post-doctoral training at The New York Lighthouse and the University of Illinois at Chicago.