Bob Gumson’s career in disability rights advocacy started in his childhood. He received the message from his family that his blindness was merely an inconvenience, something everyone faces. He became his own best advocate at an early age, fighting alongside his family for the right to attend public school and summer camp, participate in a high-school fraternity, and play sports. He also put pressure on New York City to create a resource to serve people with disabilities, which later became the Mayor's Office for Handicapped Affairs.
Bob realized and used the power of peer mentoring during his time as a vocational rehabilitation counselor, working primarily with consumers with psychiatric disabilities and substance abuse disorders. primarily serving consumers with psychiatric disabilities and substance abuse disorders. During his tenure in the offices of the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission administrative office he was responsible for coordinating the state’s network of Independent Living Centers to advocate for access to all Bureau of Substance Abuse Services, treatment, recovery and prevention services.
This successful effort earned Bob a statewide advocacy award in the early 1990s. He had the opportunity to attend National Council on Independent Living (NCIL) conferences in the infancy of the national independent living movement.
Bob took these foundational experiences to the next level when he became the manager of Independent Living Services for the New York State Education Department’s Adult Career and Continuing Education Services-Vocational Rehabilitation (ACCES-VR) program.
During his 25 years in this capacity, Bob touched on every aspect of New York's disability rights community from his role at the planning table to shape a statewide systems advocacy network to revamping ILC contracts to define, promote, and reinforce efforts to bring about change.
He left nobody behind in his determination to find ways to serve youth, seniors, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans and veterans, to name a few communities affected by his work. He was able to accomplish and sustain the significant development of Independent Living Centers across New York state while experiencing constantly diminishing internal resources and support from his own agency.
Bob is a member of Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany. In 2016 he wrote an essay for The Jewish World on the challenges of practicing his faith and participating in his community as a person with a disability. In that essay, he recalls putting together a conference, “Living Holy and Wholly: Equal Access to Jewish Education, Worship and Community Life” in 1996.
“We had over 100 people attend and begin to examine our feelings and practices about inclusion and access,” he wrote. “I’d like to think our early pioneering efforts led to greater awareness and influenced positive change that is still taking shape today toward greater inclusiveness.”
Bob does not define himself as a blind person, but as someone who happens to be blind. “I’m a husband, a father, a worker, a lover of music, someone who travels, reads, and learns. I yearn for the day when we can all define ourselves by our roles in life and our abilities and not by stereotypes and disabilities.”
Thanks to Bob’s efforts, that day may come sooner rather than later.
To watch Bob's award acceptance speech, click the video below: