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Education

Avid Traveler Who Worked To Help Students With Disabilities Dies From COVID-19

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

One hundred thousand - it's a number we've been saying a lot this week. But behind that COVID-19 death toll are individuals like Brian Miller. He was 52.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Miller devoted his career to helping students with disabilities, and it was a mission driven by his own experience.

CHANG: Miller was born with defective retinas, and he eventually went blind. As a kid, life in a classroom full of sighted students could be really hard. Getting resources like Braille books was a constant fight.

KELLY: But his mom Jane McGinnis says he was determined. Like when he struggled to see the chalkboard, Miller would memorize the lessons in advance to keep up.

CHANG: McGinnis also says her son was bright and curious, but some teachers didn't think blind kids needed an advanced education.

JANE MCGINNIS: They were ready to say, well, OK, that's it. You've got an education. Now go home and weave baskets or sell pencils. They could not understand why he needed an education beyond what he had.

KELLY: Well, he showed them. Miller owned a bachelor's, two master's and a Ph.D. He went on to a career at the U.S. Department of Education, conducting oversight of some of the same state agencies he lobbied for support when he was a student.

CHANG: Outside work, Miller was a history buff and loved to read. He spoke several languages, volunteered, sang in an a cappella group.

KELLY: And he loved to travel. He had already hit six continents and 65 countries.

MCGINNIS: When he died, one of the things I had to do was try to find out all the different trips that he had planned and deposits he'd made. And he was scheduled to go to Ukraine. He had a Mongolia trip scheduled. He wanted to go to Antarctica.

CHANG: When Miller was on a ventilator, McGinnis says, 50 friends he'd met on his travels joined a video chat to wish him well. And McGinnis has received dozens of notes detailing all the ways her son helped lift up blind students.

KELLY: There's another marker of her son's impact. His dissertation on the blind civil rights movement is still being read. There's this map, McGinnis says, where you can see all the downloads.

MCGINNIS: And I looked at the map, and I could see all the dots all over the world - you know, Africa, Europe. And I thought, oh, my gosh. In a way, you know, like, Brian's still there. His legacy is to never give up, I think, just to know that you can make the world be what you want it to be and that there are going to be problems but you can get through them. And there are people out there to help you. You don't have to do it all by yourself.

CHANG: Jane McGinnis remembering her son Brian Miller.

(SOUNDBITE OF OSKAR SCHUSTER'S "FJARLAEGUR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.