Helen Harris, Hollywood Activist for the Blind, Dies at 78

Helen Harris - P 2014
Courtesy of RP International

Helen Harris - P 2014

The founder of RP International established the Vision Awards and helped the visually impaired enjoy such movies as 'It's a Wonderful Life' and 'Titanic'

Helen Harris, a homemaker-turned-Hollywood-activist whose pioneering work helped make movies accessible to the blind and the visually impaired, has died. She was 78.

Harris died on Christmas Eve in her Woodland Hills, Calif., home after an eight-year battle with breast cancer, RP (Retinitis Pigmentosa) International spokesperson Parvene Michaels said.

Harris founded RP International, a charitable organization that focuses attention on eye problems and promotes research, education and human services for victims of degenerative eye diseases, in 1973.

A bit later, Harris created the Vision Awards, which for years honored visionaries in music, film, television, technology and medical research.

Harris was a homemaker in Pennsylvania in the late 1950s when she was diagnosed with RP. She eventually went blind and learned that she had passed on the disease to two of her young sons.

Two of Harris’ favorite contributions to helping the visually impaired fully enjoy the holiday season — The Eyes of Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life, the 1946 holiday classic but here with descriptions for the blind — played on TV on Christmas Day, hours after her death.

It’s a Wonderful Life is narrated in Descriptive TheatreVision by President George H.W. Bush, while The Eyes of Christmas, narrated by Dodgers legend Vin Scully, is the only TV show in the U.S. specifically made accessible with TheatreVision.

Harris worked with talent and studios to produce TheatreVision versions of several films; James Cameron, for one, lent his voice for the audio description of his 1997 blockbuster Titanic.

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