Catherine Skivers: Organizer, Activist, Friend, Blind Community Leader

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This is a post honoring Catherine Skivers. Cathy has been a blind advocate for 70 years. She always believed in helping blind people advance in society because people helped her when she was young. She was an early participant in the California Council of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind. Cathy helped develop Structured Negotiation by believing in Talking ATMs even though she said she would never use them.

blind woman holding braille speaking into microphone

[Update: Catherine Skivers died on December 12, 2019, a week after this post was written.]

Catherine Skivers came to California in 1949 at the age of 23 with the man she had married at 16. Within a year, her husband had left her, offering her a one-way bus ticket back to her family in Missouri. Cathy gave an emphatic “no.” She refused to move 2,000 miles from her two young children.

Cathy had never worked a day in her life when the man she had married in Missouri left her in Oakland California. What to do? Cathy took the bus to meet with someone she thought could help her — a rehabilitation counselor named Al Jenkins. Jenkins asked Cathy about her prior work experience.

“I have none,” she said, “but if a blind person has ever done it, I can do it too.”

Skivers immediately began working as a switchboard operator, going on to a career with the IRS. She raised those two children she refused to leave behind, and three others as well. And always, though challenges and high points, she was guided by a philosophy she has shared with me many times:

“I told Al Jenkins that if I ever landed on my feet, I would never forget the hand he extended to me, and I would help others the way he helped me.”

At 94, Skivers has spent a life time doing just that. (The picture illustrating this post is of Cathy at age 92 talking about the importance of braille literacy at the 2017 Northern California Regional Braille Challenge at the San Francisco LightHouse.)

As I write this, Cathy Skivers is in hospice, friends calling from across the country to reminisce, thank and honor a woman who has done so much for the blindness community.

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70 Years of Service to the Blindness Community

Cathy’s contributions to the blindness community are enormous. She fought battles in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. to pass and strengthen legislation that benefitted blind people. She poured her talents and heart into building and nurturing the California Council of the Blind and its parent organization, the American Council of the Blind.

She raised money for blindness causes and blind people and was adamant that that money be wisely and responsibly spent. And she never tired, caring about issues and doing what she could decades after most people stop contributing.

In 2018, almost 70 years after she committed to a philosophy of helping others, the San Francisco LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired honored Skivers with the Newell Perry Award for enduring and effective leadership in the blindness community. The LightHouse award write up stated

Catherine Skivers’ enduring commitment to the furtherance of the blindness community is rooted in California, but felt throughout the world. Holding many leadership roles through her career including president of the California Council of the Blind, Skivers has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to equity, dignity and authenticity for blind people everywhere.LightHouse News, November 30 2018

Blind advocate and AT&T Public Policy Director gives a taste of Cathy’s 70 years of advocacy in service of the blind community:

Hillel once said,

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”

I cannot think of a person who has more fully lived these words than Cathy Skivers. She triumphed over personal adversity. She not only supported herself and her sons but worked tirelessly for the rights of the disabled. Cathy acted the urgency needed to ensure that blind people could access technologies they would need to find jobs, manage finances and fully participate in society — even when she knew that she might never use that technology herself. I know the dedication, strength and resilience that she demonstrated throughout her life will continue through the so many she has mentored. Susan Mazrui

Cathy Skivers is that rare combination of fierce when fierce is needed, always flowing from a big and generous heart:

Cathy Skivers is as dedicated an advocate for persons who are blind or have low vision as I have ever met, and in that role she is tough as nails. Yet, she is equally as caring a person for her many friends and loved ones as you will ever come across.Jeff Thom, immediate past president, California Council of the Blind

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Role Model, Mentor, Cheerleader for Many

Like all true leaders, Cathy Skivers was a mentor and role model to many (including me). Here are thoughts from just two of the thousands of blind people she impacted during her decades of leadership.

Kim Charlson became the first woman president of the American Council of the Blind in 2013:

In my early years in ACB, I would listen to Cathy Skivers speak on the convention floor, and I would think to myself ‘I hope some day I can be a leader in ACB like Cathy is!’ I always admired her attention to detail, her memory, and her definite belief in the principles of democracy and transparency in how our organization needed to run itself. Decisions always needed to be open and upfront to the membership, and that made a real impact on me.

As I grew in my leadership roles in ACB, I saw less and less of Cathy at conventions, but I never forgot about her, and the impact she made on me. I hope that in my role as the first woman president of the American Council of the Blind, Cathie took some pride in the glass ceiling I was able to break in our organization, and that she is aware of how much she helped shape who I became as a leader. As one strong woman leader to another, I hope I can be as influential a role model for others in ACB as Cathy has been for me! Thank you Cathy from all of the members of ACB you have impacted with your leadership and mentorship.Kim Charlson, immediate past president, American Council of the Blind; Director, Perkins Library

Richard Rueda also considers how Cathy Skivers impacted his life:

Cathy Skivers is a fierce and sound advocate of issues impacting blind individuals. In 1998 when in college, I met Cathy at one of the CCB conventions in Southern California. She is the reason why to this date I have grown and supported advocacy issues in our community. As a college student with little to no idea on what advocacy, legislation the term networking meant, she saw something in me that I did not know existed. Now, two decades later, sharing her passion along with hundreds and thousands of blind folks across the US and the world, I can say that I am proud to be a part of advocacy efforts.

Cathy, you have taught me so much. Namely, putting the needs of others first and assuring every voice is heard and given a forum.Richard Rueda, blindness community advocate involved in the American Council of the Blind and California Council Of The Blind.

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Cathy Skivers Role in Developing Structured Negotiation

Lainey and Cathy Skivers at a CCB convention, possibly 2006Catherine Skivers was instrumental to the development of Structured Negotiation as a collaborative way to resolve accessibility claims.

Cathy was the president of the California Council of the Blind in the mid-1990’s when we were working to convince banks to develop and then install ATMs that blind people could use. It was the first Structured Negotiation, although we didn’t know it yet. (The picture here shows Cathy and me at a CCB convention, where Cathy often invited us to come and speak of legal issues with the membership.)

Cathy was clear throughout the process: She would never use an ATM herself – Talking or not. And you know what? She never did. But Cathy Skivers, like all good organizers, put the needs and desires of her membership and the blindness community first.

Another organizational president may have squashed the idea of ATMS blind people could use independently, but not Cathy. She was as fierce an advocate as any, and her advocacy skills helped push the banks to develop the new technology. (And her lifelong commitment to Braille as a crucial literacy tool helped push the banks to include braille documents in all our settlement agreements.)

Cathy Skivers with Linda Dardarian in Cathy's Hayward home Cathy was also a firm believer in the power of collaboration. After Structured Negotiation proved successful in those early negotiations, and long after Cathy stepped back from her leadership roles in CCB, she never stopped supporting Linda Dardarian and me.

The image here is a picture of Linda and Cathy during one of our visits to her home. We tried to go each May, on Cathy’s birthday, and during the Christmas season. Even when she could no longer leave the house, Cathy’s active mind and stellar memory kept her engaged. She calls us “her girls” and is always eager to hear what new projects we were involved in.

Through our work together, and our visits over the years, I learned so much from Catherine Skivers about blindness, and what it means to be a committed leader and a disability community elder. I chose to write this post now, while Cathy can read it, to remind her, and all of us, what a lifetime of leadership looks like.

Read Cathy Skivers’ early memories of learning braille, in her own words