by Joan MacTavish
Reviewed by Lorraine Rovig
From the Editor: Biographies of deaf-blind women seem to be fashionable this year. Our friends at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind asked the Braille Monitor to review a recently released biography of a remarkable Canadian woman. Lorraine Rovig, a librarian, a lover of books, and a member of our national staff, has reviewed the book. This is what she wrote:
Joan MacTavish begins her biography of Mae Brown by saying, “This book is dedicated to all persons who are deaf-blind, everywhere.” Considering the work it took for Miss Brown, the first deaf-blind Canadian to obtain a college degree and only the second woman after Helen Keller, “dedication” is the perfect word to associate with this biography—also steadfastness and courage. Anyone who enjoys reading about real people who exemplify these old-fashioned virtues will enjoy reading Bravo! Miss Brown. Beyond the people we meet, there are interesting descriptions of methods used by Mae and herassistants from the 1940’s through the 1970’s. As Mrs. MacTavish says:
Mae and I began working together when words like “advocate,” “rights,” “ability” (instead of “disability”), “access,” “barrier-free,” and “politically correct” were rarely heard. . . . Society was less accepting of those who were “different.” The technology that makes so much possible today did not exist (my tape recorder was considered an expensive gadget).
Through all of her troubles Mae believed that God had a purpose for her life. She came to believe that this was to create the first service targeted to assist all deaf-blind people in Canada. Back then (and still today) the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) was the single nationwide governmental service in Canada which had responsibility for succoring those who were blind or deaf-blind. Services for deaf-blind people were meager. It is interesting to read how many professional workers for CNIB decided to go beyond anything the Institution had done before in order to offer special assistance and funding to train this one woman. Apparently many at CNIB hoped with Miss Brown that she would help them make a breakthrough to a better program for all deaf-blind Canadians.
Born in 1935, Mae lost her sight gradually, beginning about age two and a half. When she was ten, the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, told her parents they could not discover the cause. (It would have taken a modern MRI scanner to find the brain tumors pressing on her brain.) By the time Mae was thirteen in 1948, she could no longer read print and had much hearing loss. Mae graduated from eighth grade but left high school at age fifteen (in ninth grade), due, she said, to the strain caused by her disabilities. Mae Brown lost the remainder of her sight and all of her hearing at age eighteen, during a chancy, life-saving brain-operation. In addition removal of one of the tumors deadened the muscles on the left side of her face and caused a loss of balance when she walked.
Mae craved education. She said, “I am not going to spend the rest of my life sewing aprons for a living, and I am not going to sit around like an invalid.” The first part of the biography concerns her training in blindness skills and, later, deaf-blindness skills, including some advanced training at the Travis Association for the Blind in Austin, Texas.
Anyone presently dealing with the costs of modern-day programs for orientation and adjustment to blindness or to deaf-blindness will be amused to read that in 1955 Travis charged $40 per week for forty-three weeks of training and $20 per month for laundry. Mae contributed a total of $120 from her governmental pension of $40 per month, while CNIB found enough funds for the rest, including round-trip airfare, for a grand total of $2,620. Forty-three weeks is nearly eleven months of training for a deaf-blind person, while modern NFB training centers for blind adults offer six to nine months of training. In contrast, many state-run and other private training centers today offer blind adults only a few weeks to three months of training in their programs.
The author does a wonderful job of enlightening the reader about how this double handicap affected Mae’s life.
I cannot take the initial step to get acquainted with people because, unless they touch me, I do not know they are there. How I wish I did not have to wake up every morning with the same thought: ‘Who will be my ears today?’. . . I do not ask for crowds of friends—just one or two here and there. If friends do not come to me, I cannot seek them for I do not know where they are. (diary excerpt)
We read that Mae Brown wanted more than anything to be treated as “a normal person” and to live “a normal life.” She wanted a husband, children, her own home, and a worthwhile job. She wanted friends who liked her for her personality, not those who were assigned to her as helper-companions. These are certainly normal ambitions. In Mae’s case, of the three men she appears to have considered marrying, one she discovered was a scoundrel, and two were chased away by other people who had their own agendas. Bravo! Miss Brown gives an unusually factual account of her dating and marriage-attempts (thwarted), her wish for an independent home life (mostly thwarted), and her relationships with many teachers, counselors, and officials working for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (generally positive).
To be eligible for a professional job at CNIB, which she believed would lead to the job she was uniquely suited to do, Mae needed more than her eighth-grade diploma. CNIB-paid tutors helped her to earn her GED. Then “In September 1967 Mae Sophia Brown, a thirty-two-year-old woman who was deaf-blind, launched her Centennial Project—starting a program that would lead to getting a university education at the University of Toronto.” It took her six-and-a-half years of hard work to get her Bachelor of Arts diploma, much of it detailed by the author.
Joan MacTavish knows the details, none better. She was hired by CNIB to assist Mae in attending her classes, doing her research, and interacting with the other students in non-study situations (as much as Mae’s workload allowed), and more. It was Joan and a team of braillists who brailled all of Mae’s materials. The author comments: “Today, whether we use the word ‘interpreter,’ ‘intervener,’ or ‘care-giver,’ a code of conduct, established rules, and a clear definition of roles exist to guide both parties. I cannot see Mae or I succeeding if we had been obliged to work within them.”
Here is the dedicated Joan MacTavish commenting on one summer semester with Mae: “Read, summarize, Braille; read, summarize, Braille, on and on for twelve weeks.” It was not all work, of course. Mae wrote Joan, July 25, 1970, from her new apartment: “Maybe I shouldn’t be taking time off my studies to drop you a note ...got an A on my book review. I have been very busy today as I baked a cake....I will be roasting a poor chicken tomorrow for dinner. Don’t you feel sorry for it? ...I have forgotten how to use a vacuum! We still have a bathroom cabinet to come and one dresser, but they should arrive soon.”
It is interesting to read about the concessions that were made by the college—such as pulling all science, math, and foreign language courses from her course-work—because as a deaf-blind student, Mae argued, she couldn’t be expected to learn them. Miss Brown, Mrs. MacTavish, the college, her counselors and supporters at CNIB, apparently everyone, believed that no alternatives existed that would allow her to study several disciplines required of her fellow students. Federationists could debate whether she could have managed such courses then and whether a deaf-blind person today would need to make the same choices. I wonder whether Helen Keller, too, was excused from some of the courses normally required for the degree she attained.
Mae managed to do what only a very few deaf-blind people in the history of the world have done. She earned a college degree (June 1, 1972), and she was hired for and performed a job she valued (beginning September 1, 1972, as CNIB’s Counsellor for the Deaf-Blind, Ontario Division). She lived for many years in an ordinary apartment with a blind roommate, who helped her communicate with the hearing world. Miss Mae Brown was intelligent, stubborn, thoughtful, kind, ordinary and extraordinary, dedicated to making a positive difference in the world, and both totally deaf and totally blind. Mae Brown lived long enough to begin to live her dream, and then in November, 1973, she died.
Months later Joan MacTavish was hired as CNIB’s Coordinator, Deaf-Blind Services, Ontario Division. In spite of her attempt to carry out Mae’s plans, our author, now retired, tells us that in the year 2000 “the condition of those who lose their sight and hearing after birth remains the least understood, and service for them is the most under-funded....”
Mae Brown did not always triumph over her difficult circumstances. She had triumphs and failures, some of them due to assistance or interference from others and some of them due to her own traits, for good or ill. It is refreshing in this genre to read about the goals Miss Brown did not reach and to piece together the many clues why she did not or, at the time, could not.
Mae wrote about making her life a staircase and about her hope that others would use her life’s work to climb higher. Dr. Kenneth Jernigan used similar imagery in a speech he gave decades later at an NFB National Convention. As Federationists know, blind Americans working together have climbed higher toward independence and true equality since the founding of the NFB. Mae Brown’s biography strengthens my belief that conditions are ripening for a leap forward for those who are deaf-blind. In the NFB’s history of improvements for blind people we have seen first individual blind leaders with separate groups, then, as a leader emerges to articulate a central vision and unite these groups into a federation, a growing movement of coordinated action.
In her generation Mae Brown was one single deaf-blind Canadian who wanted to go to college and received the backing to accomplish this feat. She attempted to unite deaf-blind Canadians with limited success. Over the last two decades in Seattle an independent community of people who are deaf and blind has been growing and networking, and in the last decade the NFB’s Deaf-Blind Division has grown nationwide in leadership, membership, and programs. In addition several competent blind Federation leaders with college degrees and jobs whose blindness likely will change to deaf-blindness as they get older are well-trained in civil rights activism. All these things conjoin to suggest possibilities for positive change that would surely have pleased Canada’s activist Mae Brown.
To order Bravo! Miss Brown by Joan MacTavish, CAVU Inc. (Toronto), ©2000, 392 pages, ISBN 0-9688089-0-5, call General Distribution Services in Niagara Falls, New York, at (416) 213-1919, extension 199. Print paperback copies are $16.95 U.S; $24.95 Canadian, plus shipping (check, Visa, or MasterCard).