PITTSFIELD -- A Pittsfield native is taking her advocacy for people who are blind and living with other disabilities to the White House.
Janet L. LaBreck this week began her new role as commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C. Since 2007, she had served as commissioner of the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind.
LaBreck was tapped for the nomination by President Barack Obama back in February. She was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on Aug. 1.
The RSA oversees grant programs that help individuals diagnosed with a range of physical or mental disabilities to obtain employment and live more independently through the provision of such supports as counseling, medical and psychological services, job training and other individualized services.
"She's a very eloquent speaker and very progressive in the sense that her goal while she was with the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind was to promote access for employment for people who are blind," said Ron Gallagher of Williamstown, who also serves as the Western Massachusetts division director for the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind (MCB).
The state commission serves more than 30,000 blind people, from birth to adulthood, including 3,000 in Western Massachusetts.
Gallagher said LaBreck, who still has family in the area, comes from humble beginnings. He said she grew up as one of four African-American children in a family of modest means on Jubilee Terrace in Pittsfield. Gallagher said at least two of the LaBreck siblings were seriously affected by a degenerative eye condition. By age 10, Janet LaBreck was legally blind.
Despite little assistive technology and limited services for blind youths available during that time, LaBreck kept moving forward and kept up with her education.
She was a student at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown from 1970 to 1977, but returned to Pittsfield and graduated from Taconic High School in 1978. LaBreck later earned a bachelor's from the University of Massachusetts.
She joined the MCB in 1985 as a consumer advocate, and held subsequent roles as an independent living coordinator, vocational rehabilitation counselor and director for the Central Massachusetts region before being appointed as MCB commissioner -- a post first held by the iconic activist Helen Keller.
LaBreck earned her master's from Springfield College in 2001. Since 2005, she has been an adjunct professor at Assumption College, where she teaches graduate-level courses in rehabilitation for the blind and case management in rehabilitation.
In 2008, LaBreck began working with Osbourne, a German shepherd trained by the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation. That same year, she was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the New England College of Optometry.
"She's such a dynamic individual her mere presence in a group is inspiring for many," Gallagher said.
Though managing numerous meetings, public speaking engagements and other events while serving at the MCB commissioner, LaBreck seemed to regularly find opportunities to connect with people in the Berkshires who needed her support.
"I strive to make a difference in the life of individuals whom I interact with each day," said LaBreck, in an article published on the MCB website. "I strongly believe that it is important to be kind to a person who may not always have kindness in their life. Being professional and supportive is a trait that I want to live by."
In 2008, she visited the Berkshire Talking Chronicle studio in Dalton before it closed and consolidated operations were established on West Street in Pittsfield.
Lynn Shortis, who has taught people who are visually impaired for nearly 25 years, remembers the visit and introducing some students to LaBreck.
"She was enjoyable and a knowledgeable advocate for individuals in general. She's also someone who's been through the system as a visually impaired student," said Shortis. "She's very vocal."
The Pittsfield Public School teacher currently works with about 30 students, who have partial to no sight. Shortis said that in her new role, LaBreck has the opportunity to continue to be a national voice for people who need specialized services, support and resources.
Tim Potter of Pittsfield, an MCB consumer, is an alumnus of the Summer Internship Program, which LaBreck helped to establish. He said when the program began a decade ago, it had two interns. This summer, it had 83 interns placed in work sites across the state.
"Commissioner LaBreck was a strong advocate for the blind community. She will be missed by MCB," Potter told The Eagle in a letter.
In 2010, LaBreck attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Pittsfield for the launch of a New England Eye On-Site Mobile Care Clinic to provide low-vision services. In 2011, LaBreck returned to be the keynote speaker at the first "Dining in the Dark" benefit for the AdLib Center for Independent Living in Pittsfield.
Last August, LaBreck visited the Berkshires again, to attend the Rock, Rattle & Drum Pow Wow America in Lanesborough. There, she was recognized as the event's honoree for never letting her disability get in the way of her dreams.
"From the moment I met her, I knew she was one of a kind, and a leader," said Susan Jameson of Healing Winds, which organizes the event. She said LaBreck's appointment to her latest role is nothing short of inspirational.
"She teaches me that we can do anything in life," said Jameson. "She is so positive, loving, light and joyful but serious about her work. I think she is one of the great women of our country."