And the vistas are thrilling. Through the magic of the modem, Griffith, 63, whom a friend has named "the Helen Keller of the technological age," has been able to stretch far beyond her disabilities. Not only does she surf the Net, she now hosts five popular CompuServe forums on politics, current events and religion. "She understands how to build a sense of community, which is very important for online," says Mary Kay Fen-ner, a CompuServe marketing manager. "People feel comfortable voicing opinions in her forums."
What's more, in 1984 Griffith launched the Handicapped Users Database, which helps those seeking information on disabilities. "Out there I can talk to people," she tells a reporter who has arrived to interview her—via computer, of course. "How could I ever have met Al Gore [who 'visited' her White House forum] before computers?" Theirs has been a mutual admiration society: She is impressed with Gore's technology ideas; he with the way she transcends physical barriers.
Griffith has been blind since birth because of a damaged optical nerve, but has always been undaunted by her sightlessness. Growing up in Lancaster—the second of three children of Florence and Bernard Griffith, a nurse and glass factory furnace-room operator, respectively—she led a relatively normal childhood. Then as now, her older sister Bernie Baker, 65, would pick out her clothing. Baker also used to wish that Georgia would someday be able to see. Much later, though, says Baker, "I realized that if she could, it would ruin her life. She's so into her world."
At age 5, Georgia went away to the Ohio State School for the Blind in Columbus. Later she became the first blind student to attend classes at Capital State University, also in Columbus. There she majored in music and, with the help of student readers, made Phi Beta Kappa. After she graduated cum laude in 1954, Griffith, who could play 12 instruments, including piano, flute and trumpet, returned home to teach music. "Her head is like a computer," says Baker. "She has gotten where she is with persistence and drive."
Then in 1970, at age 39, Griffith contracted an infection, and her world went silent. A depression followed. "Friends helped me through it," she says. "Once I had something worthwhile to do, things brightened." In 1971 she became a Braille music proofreader for the Library of Congress. She also taught herself Russian, German and a handful of other languages in order to help a friend write a Braille music dictionary. While at a teachers' conference in 1980, she came across the VersaBraille machine, a computer that translates text into Braille on a tactile display board. It changed her life. "It didn't just give her communication," says Baker. "It gave her conversation."
Griffith was 50 when she plunged into the brave new world of computers. Back then, she wrote in a rehabilitation journal, "I thought a cursor was someone who swore, and logging was something done to trees." Soon, however, she got the hang of cyberchatting. For a time her phone bill climbed to more than $1,000 a month; her circle of friends grew as well. Most significantly, by going online, Griffith found a way to reconnect with the outside. At first she simply contributed to various online forums. Before long she was running five forums and getting paid as well. Griffith's job is a mix of cyberspace cocktail hostess, talk show jock and club bouncer. After finishing work around 8 p.m. each night, she often remains online, either to shop or banter with friends. "Georgia has a vision most sighted people would envy," says her online pal Pat Phelps, whom she "chatted" with for years before revealing that she could neither hear nor see. "She's brilliant, quick-witted and kind."
Family, however, remains paramount in Griffith's life. Every morning Baker makes breakfast, and Griffith adores spending time with her seven nieces and nephews. As for a family of her own, she explains, "I've always been so busy. I didn't have time."
Griffith also brushes aside any offers of tea and sympathy. "I'm not sure what the fuss is about," she says. "I don't think I've done anything anyone else couldn't do if they wanted to. I'm not disabled. Disabled means useless. I'm handicapped, like in golf."
LEAH ESKIN in Lancaster