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Blind veteran fought for the disabled

| Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2003

Pfc. Irvin Schloss was sweaty and tired after he finished loading shells in his tank on Jan. 6, 1945, as World War II neared its end in Europe.

He squatted down in the turret of the tank to rest a bit.

"When I looked up, the last thing I saw was the back of the driver of the tank and my tank commander," Schloss recalled Monday in a quiet voice. "Then, we were hit."

Schloss, 10 days shy of turning 22, was blinded instantly when a German bazooka shell hit the tank.

"It would have been a superficial wound if the tiny metal pieces hadn't hit my eyes," said Schloss, now 80.

He pointed to small, dark grey spots on his fingers and between his eyes.

"See, I still have some of the shrapnel left in me," he said.

Schloss has a quiet, unassuming nature that was left untouched by the rigors of war. But family members say his blindness opened him up to the world.

The American Foundation for the Blind will presenting Schloss with an advocacy award -- named for him -- in a ceremony at 3 p.m. today at his home in the Friendship Village retirement community in Upper St. Clair. The Irvin Schloss Advocacy Award recognizes excellence in efforts on behalf of people who are blind or visually impaired.

Schloss is originally from Baltimore, but moved three years ago with his wife of 53 years, Estelle, to Upper St. Clair to be closer to family.

After the war he dedicated his 40-year career to the field of blindness. He was chief executive officer of the Blind Veterans Association and later served 30 years as the legislative analyst and Washington representative for the American Foundation for the Blind. He retired in 1988.

Schloss said he just "did what needed to be done" in fighting to keep and increase funding for programs for the disabled.

"We do what we can in life to hopefully help others. That's about the size of it," Schloss said, smiling.

But officials running the programs Schloss helped over the years tell a different, more heroic story.

Carl Augusto, president and CEO of the American Foundation for the Blind, said Schloss led the way to getting two pieces of legislation passed that have had a strong impact on the blind and disabled.

First, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 upgraded the rehabilitation services offered to blind and disabled people by increasing their participation in determining which program would be best for them.

"Before this act, the disabled were told what they were going to do and get done. Now the law for the first time prescribed that clients should be equal participants," Augusto said.

Second, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, passed in 1975, provides grant money to local school districts to serve disabled children. Augusto said that before this law, few school systems were educating blind children.

Augusto said Schloss also helped save the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped from substantial cuts during President Carter's administration.

"He's a living legacy," Augusto said of Schloss. "He's a treasure to the blind and visually impaired people of the United States."

Frank Kurt Cylke, director of the National Library Service, said Schloss helped the organization stay afloat.

"He was on top of every piece of legislation that affected the blind," Cylke said, describing Schloss as an excellent representative for the blind community because he was a well-read, thoughtful and intelligent person who understood how Congress worked.

Cylke said Schloss on several occasions assisted in advancing the budget of the Washington, D.C.-based organization.

Schloss received numerous awards for his work and met Presidents Truman, Nixon, Johnson and Carter and former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. He even rode in President Kennedy's funeral cortege.

Cylke called him the "master of the lobbying craft."

"He was extremely modest and low-key. But he got more done that way. His quiet, unassuming nature got the wheels turning and he got things done," Cylke said.

"There hasn't been anybody since then that could compare to him," he added.

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