Braille Monitor                                                             March 2007

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Dr. Isabelle Grant-Teacher and World Traveler

by Lou Ann Blake

From the Editor: Lou Ann Blake is a research specialist at the National Federation of the Blind Jacobus tenBroek Library. In sorting and filing the personal and professional papers in the tenBroek collection, she has recently been reading material written by and about Dr. Isabelle Grant, one of the early leaders of the National Federation of the Blind and a world figure in the education of blind students. Almost the only thing that younger Federationists remember about her today is the fact that she endowed an annual NFB scholarship for a blind woman in memory of her daughter Hermione Grant Calhoun. Here is Lou Ann Blake’s report on Dr. Grant’s life and work:

Dr. Isabelle Grant confers about white cane use with blind students and their principal in a public school in Lahore, Pakistan, in January of 1965.The documents collected by Dr. Jacobus tenBroek during his lifetime include the correspondence, speeches, and scholarly papers of Dr. tenBroek himself, as well as those of other early leaders in the blind civil rights movement. One of those early leaders was Dr. Isabelle Grant, a teacher in the Los Angeles, California, public school system for thirty-two years; member of the NFB board of directors; treasurer and third vice president of the International Federation of the Blind (IFB, now the World Blind Union); and editor of Braille International. However, it was Dr. Grant’s worldwide effort to improve the education of blind children that was her most notable contribution in the struggle for the civil rights of blind people. This article will focus on the life of Dr. Grant as revealed through correspondence, newspaper articles, and reports written by her that are part of the tenBroek papers collection in the Jacobus tenBroek Library at the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore, Maryland.

Many details about Isabelle Grant’s personal life are not well documented. While we know that she was a native of Aberdeen, Scotland, none of the documents in the tenBroek files thus far reviewed include her birth date, apparently because she never revealed her age, as evidenced by a newspaper article in the tenBroek files that quotes her as replying, “That’s one question I never answer,” in response to a reporter’s inquiry. An article entitled “Davis Woman of the Week” from the June 21, 1971, issue of the Davis Enterprise as well as issues of “Who Are the Blind Who Lead the Blind” from the 1960s indicate that Isabelle Grant received a master’s degree with honors from Aberdeen University in 1917. She pursued additional studies at the Sorbonne in Paris and the University of Madrid. Upon completion of her education in Europe, she moved to Los Angeles in the 1930s, where she received her doctor of philosophy degree from the University of Southern California in 1940. She and her husband Dr. Alexander Grant, a physician in the Los Angeles area who died in the early 1940s, had one daughter named Hermione. Dr. Isabelle Grant died in 1977, one week before that year’s NFB annual convention in New Orleans.

California’s First Blind Teacher

When Dr. Grant began to lose her vision in the mid-1940s from acute glaucoma, she was employed by the Los Angeles Board of Education as a vice principal at Belvedere Junior High School. In January 1949 the board of education informed Dr. Grant that, due to her vision loss, she would have to take a disability retirement from her vice principal position. A draft article written by Hazel tenBroek and entitled “Isabelle L. D. Grant: The Early Years” describes how the National Federation of the Blind and many of Dr. Grant’s professional colleagues joined her in a bitter struggle with the board of education to keep her out of forced retirement.

In February 1949 she was removed from her position at Belvedere and placed at Polytechnic High School as the first blind teacher in the California public school system. However, her difficulties because of school administrators’ misunderstandings about blindness did not end there. From Polytechnic she was moved from school to school and from program to program. Her better students were removed from her class after they showed improvement as a result of her instruction. A sighted adult was always in her classroom, and if that adult had to leave the room, the door was locked as a “safety precaution.”

As a result of her employment experience as a blind teacher, Isabelle Grant worked on both the legislative and organizational fronts so that future generations of blind teachers would not have to overcome the obstacles that she endured. In collaboration with the California Council of the Blind (CCB, now the NFB of California), she got the California legislature to pass legislation to eliminate visual acuity requirements for teacher certification and to ban discrimination against the blind in admission to teacher-training programs, practice-teaching assignments, and application for teaching positions. She also organized the CCB’s teachers’ division in 1960. At the sixth annual Conference of Blind Teachers, hosted by the CCB teachers’ division in 1965, she stated in her keynote address: “Good teaching is not measured in diopters of visual acuity, but in imagination, efficiency, competency, faith in one’s self and in one’s teaching.”

Isabelle Grant was an early proponent, both in the United States and throughout the world, of the integrated education of blind children with their sighted peers. She believed that because the blind can and must function in a sighted society, the time to start the integration process is during childhood. By attending regular schools, she advised educators, blind children “can be stimulated by and learn the ways of their sighted peers.” The best response to her integrated program was in developing countries, because they lacked the money to build separate schools for the blind.

As part of her campaign for the integrated education of blind children with sighted children, Dr. Grant prepared papers on the education of blind children and presented them throughout the world. Copies of these documents that may be found in the tenBroek papers include: “Some Considerations and Recommendations in the Education of Blind Children,” prepared in 1954 for the CCB Committee on Educational Policy; “Education of Blind Children in the Public Schools: A Teacher’s Viewpoint,” presented at the October 1956 convention of the CCB; and “A White Paper for the Education of Our Blind Children,” presented at the 1969 convention of the IFB in Ceylon.

A World Leader in the Education of the Blind

In 1959 Isabelle Grant took her crusade for the education and training of blind people to the world. She received a one-year sabbatical from her teaching position and traveled, accompanied only by her white cane, “Oscar,” to twenty-three countries to study the education and rehabilitation of blind children. Thus she became the first blind woman to travel around the world alone. As part of this trip, she spent September 1959 to February 1960 in Pakistan, where she helped to organize the Pakistan Association of the Blind.

Upon her retirement from teaching in the Los Angeles public school system in June 1962, Dr. Grant returned to Pakistan on a Fulbright Scholarship. The purpose of this trip was to train Pakistani teachers in the education of blind children in regular schools with sighted children. In 1964 she returned to Pakistan on a second Fulbright Scholarship to continue this work.

She began a trip in 1967 that took her to Africa, Indonesia, Pakistan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Japan. By far, however, the best documented of her travels in the tenBroek files is her trip to ten countries in Africa.

Odyssey to Africa

In late August 1967 plans were made for Isabelle Grant to travel to Africa and report back to Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, then president of both the IFB and NFB, on how blind African children were educated; the condition of blind Africans regarding the right to be in public places and the right to use public facilities, public transportation, and public accommodations; conditions of labor and employment of the blind; and to what extent the blind of Africa had organized themselves. She was provided with $2,000 from the American Brotherhood for the Blind (now the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults) to pay for her airplane travel and some additional expenses.

The first of her reports from Africa contained in the tenBroek files is a letter dated November 24, 1967, when she was in Rabat, Morocco. In this letter she notes that blind Moroccans could not vote or hold any positions in government. In addition, the blind of Morocco were not permitted to travel alone on trains, but, wrote Dr. Grant, “I went alone anyway.” Her December 31, 1967, letter from East London, South Africa, states: “My main asset when I meet with blind people, as well as sighted people, is that I am traveling alone, and if I can do it, their blind can do it too. This is where an agency cannot and does not function, for doing things FOR the blind is very different from the blind doing things for and by themselves.”

She found a wide variation in the education of blind children among the African countries she visited. In Nigeria and Uganda she found that blind children were educated with sighted children in an integrated program. However, in most of the African countries she visited, blind children were educated in missionary schools. Those she observed in Kenya were typical: “All education of the blind children in Kenya is done in mission schools, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Salvation Army. They stay in the school under mission care for twelve to fifteen years without making any contact with open society and, after that, return to their homes prepared for nothing, hopeless and helpless, or they are absorbed back into the schools as teachers. What kind of teachers is left to the imagination.” In Zambia, where religious missionaries also ran the schools for the blind, she found the education of the blind in arithmetic, geography, and history to be “a bare minimum.”

Because of the inadequate education that most blind African children received, she observed that most blind adults were either unemployed or employed in menial, low-paying jobs. With the average blind adult Zambian having only six years of education, she found that blind Zambians were “asking for jobs for which they were totally unprepared. Few, if any, could write on a typewriter. They told me they did not have typewriters in the mission schools.” Of the 70,000 blind living in Kenya, only 100 to 150 had jobs. The blind in Morocco made brooms, mops, and rugs in sheltered workshops. However, she did meet a handful of blind Africans who were employed as telephone operators, farmers, and factory workers, as well as one South African who was a physical therapist and an English teacher in Ethiopia.

In South Africa, where the majority of the blind were found among the native Bantus, she experienced firsthand the system of racial and ethnic segregation known as apartheid. In a letter dated January 20, 1968, she wrote, “According to the political arrangement, . . . [the Bantus] are kept entirely separated from the Europeans.” When describing her efforts to speak with some of the blind Bantus, she reported: “[I] was told that I would have to have a permit to visit the enclaves and be accompanied by a policeman when I entered. I felt I did not want to do that.” While in East London, South Africa, she had the opportunity to speak with some blind South Africans of European descent. Here she found that “again, there [was] a division. The preponderance [was] towards the Afrikaans or Dutch Boer group, and they in turn [had] little or nothing to do with the other Europeans of British descent.” In her report to Dr. tenBroek, she states: “This will give you a slight idea of the difficulty I have had in trying to find information, for the center of interest was not in the blind people at all, but in the political set-up.” Upon her return to California, she wrote in her “Quotes from My African Letters”: “In South Africa and in Rhodesia I was unhappy, uncomfortable, afraid. I have nothing in common with segregation of people, and apartheid to me is inhumane, does not face facts, and is absolutely discriminatory.”

Isabelle Grant’s letters reveal that her journey through Africa was full of hardship and adventure. In a letter dated March 19, 1968, from Thika, Kenya, she describes living conditions as “sometimes very, very difficult from inaccessible roads, torrential rains (for this is the tropical belt), the constant threat of malaria, and anything from dry toilets to non-potable water. . . . This is not America. It is not even America two hundred years ago.” She described her trip to visit a school for blind children in Malawi as “one hair-raising journey by Land Rover, down river beds [filled] with torrential rains, sliding down the ravines, up on the top of dangerous escarpments with pieces of road broken, with potholes and curves that defy imagination. Add to that, when we did hit a fairly flat piece of road, cows, goats, pigs, dogs, and children from the villages barred our path.” Even travel by commercial airline was an ordeal. A flight from Abat, Morocco, to Accra, Ghana, that she expected to take three hours actually took twenty hours because the plane made so many stops in between.

Encounters with the numerous and diverse animal population of Africa are also vividly described in her letters. In her March 10, 1968, letter written in Jinja, Uganda, she writes, “This is animal territory. . . . Hippos come up from the river, crocodiles are by the dozen, and elephants by the hundreds, not to mention giraffes, hyenas, . . . buffalos, and . . . the myriad of creeping and crawling things.” In her “Quotes from My African Letters,” she describes how she avoided stepping on a “slithering cobra” by jumping in response to the shouted warning of the principal of the Lulwa Blind School in Malawi.

A World Humanitarian

Isabelle Grant was a citizen of the world. Throughout her travels she handed out copies of the Model White Cane Law and talked about the NFB and the Braille Monitor. She met with ordinary people, government officials, and heads of state. In all of the countries that she visited, she identified potential leaders and sent their names and addresses to Dr. tenBroek. By 1972, according to an article in the July 2, 1972, Sacramento Bee, she was corresponding in seven languages with eight hundred people around the world.

When she was at home in California, she continued to help the blind of the world. She collected discarded Braille books and used Braillewriters and typewriters from throughout the United States and sent them to needy blind individuals, organizations of the blind, and schools for the blind around the world. Other items she collected and sent abroad included Braille watches, slates and styluses, Braille paper, folding canes, mathematical materials, and Braille music. As a result of this work she helped to establish Braille libraries in sixty-five countries.

For her tireless efforts, she received both national and international recognition. At the 1964 NFB annual convention in Phoenix, Arizona, she received the Newel Perry award for her distinguished contributions to the blind of the world. In his award ceremony speech, a copy of which is included in the tenBroek files, then NFB president Russell Kletzing noted that Isabelle Grant was the first woman to receive the Newel Perry award. She was also selected as the International Teacher of 1967 at the annual National Teacher Remembrance Day. In addition she received commendations from United States President Richard Nixon and the French Parliament.

Perhaps the most distinguished form of recognition she received was her nomination for the 1972 Nobel Peace Prize. In response to her nomination, she told a reporter for the Sacramento Bee: “In my work I have learned to know and understand people of all nations and all religions. The common denominator to all this is human relations. I guess you could say this is my religion. I can’t think of anything more important to the future of peace.”

An Ambassador At Large

The 1968 edition of “Who Are the Blind Who Lead the Blind” described Isabelle Grant as the “unofficial ambassador at large of America’s organized blind.” Her promotion of the integrated education of blind children with sighted children and her work to establish Braille libraries improved the lives of blind people throughout the world. Here in the United States her career as a teacher in the Los Angeles public school system helped pave the way for the many blind teachers who have followed her. It is through the collected papers of Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, as part of the Jacobus tenBroek Library, that the life of Dr. Isabelle Grant will continue to be an inspiring example to the blind of the world.

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