The following article,
Remarkable! Longest Serving BYU Faculty Member is Blind,
was originally featured by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in February 2013.
Fifty-two years ago, a few months after John F. Kennedy was sworn in as the nation’s youngest president, Richard Cowan began his teaching career at Brigham Young University. He was 27 years old and had just completed a PhD at Stanford. When asked what was different in those days compared to today, he talked about the change he recognized in students and the increased tolerance for individuals who had disabilities such as his. When I met Richard Cowan almost five years ago, we shook hands and I looked into his eyes. He seemed to be looking into my eyes, but when I walked away, someone stopped me and said, “Oh, you met Professor Cowan; did you know he is blind?” I couldn’t believe it. I was convinced that he was looking right at me. I’ve heard that many of his first-time students will attend his class more than once before they realize he is blind.
A couple of years after first meeting Brother Cowan, I was privileged to watch a PowerPoint presentation he gave on temples. He must have shown some 30–40 slides. I was stunned by his ability not only to know just what was on the screen, without ever seeing it, but also to know how some of his slides were close-ups of a particular detail that few sighted-people had noticed or seen. Here was a blind man helping people with normal vision see significant details that he himself would never see. This truly is a case of the blind leading the blind.
His story was so fascinating to me that I thought it should be shared, so I contacted a couple of local TV news stations to see whether they would be interested in broadcasting his story. Both ABC 4 and KSL expressed an interest. ABC 4 contacted Richard first. Noah Bond, a reporter with ABC 4, came to campus with his cameraman and interviewed Professor Cowan (February 12). The story aired on their five o’clock news that afternoon. I was with them throughout the interview and when they went to class with him.
see ABC 4 story
When asked whether he had always been blind, he talked of how, early in his life, he had very little sight. He mostly saw larger objects but without much detail. In his early years, he could read large print with some effort. What little sight he had gradually diminished over time until it was totally lost more than ten years ago. When asked whether everything was just dark, he explained that he wouldn’t describe it as “darkness” but rather “neutral.”
When asked if he gets discouraged or depressed because of his situation he said it’s an inconvenience but that he approaches it like any other challenge by accepting the situation for what it is and adjusting. He is extremely appreciative for all those who have helped him throughout his life, including his wife, Dawn, and the numerous aids and secretaries who have assisted him. Sure, he would like to see, but he feels that his other senses serve him well, and he can enjoy an experience by the smells that are associated or by listening and touching.
What he didn’t talk much about in the interview was the fact that he is a prolific writer. He has written a number of books, articles, manuals, and is currently working on a book about Provo’s two temples, which he wants the Religious Studies Center to publish.
Students say it can be difficult to realize Cowan is blind. “He is talking directly to his students. It’s really interesting to watch him while he’s giving lectures and talking to the students in class.” Cowan is known to look directly at visual aids with his class as if he can see them. He says this is not intentional, but rather a result of focusing on the material.
One of his students who ABC 4 interviewed told how “he keeps track of where to put everything and goes by touch instead of sight,” When Cowan was asked what he thought about the fact that many of his students either didn’t realize he is blind or would easily forget because of his ability to function so well, he said he didn’t wish to be the “great deceiver.” He explained how he set goals throughout his life to do everything within his power to function as normally as possible.
Although Professor Cowan teaches the subject of Church history and doctrine, he explained how he hopes he will also teach and inspire his students to build lives of character and service and to face difficulties and challenges in their life and that no matter what obstacles may come their way, they can overcome and conquer them.
When asked how many students he has taught since he started teaching, he said he didn’t know for sure but that he would guess somewhere around 40,000 students. One of his students commented on the number of students Richard Cowan estimates he has taught: “That’s a lot of students and that’s a lot of time. It shows through in his teachings. He’s very good.”
Fifty-Two Years and Counting
During the interview I asked him what has changed since he was hired in regards to the public’s perception and attitude toward someone with his handicap. In regards to the prevailing attitude when he was hired, he said, “I knew that I was on trial. It was obvious the powers that be had never dealt with a blind professor.” In another quote, Cowan said, “My future as a blind teacher was definitely in question.” David Yarn was the dean who hired him and allowed Cowan to purchase his home. Professor Cowan remembers how “several on the faculty questioned Dean Yarn’s decision to allow us to buy his home after we had been at BYU for only a few weeks. With hindsight though, I recognize Dean Yarn’s actions as a vote of confidence. Even after such a short time, he was able to discern that I would succeed. Of course, that gave me all the more motivation to do so.”
He also pointed out that the attitudes and tolerance towards people with disabilities have progressively gotten better.
When asked if he was planning to retire anytime soon, he said that he enjoys teaching and since his administrators tell him he’s doing a good job he doesn’t have any definite plans to retire at this time.
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