Braille Monitor                                      October 2016

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The Roots of the Federation in the World: The Isabelle Grant Story in Her Own Words

by Deborah Kent Stein

Deborah Kent SteinFrom the Editor: Debbie Stein is an active member of the National Federation of the Blind who, like many of us, wears a number of hats. She is an officer in the National Federation of the Blind of Illinois, the chairman of its scholarship committee, a member of the national scholarship committee, and the editor of Future Reflections, our magazine for the parents of blind children. She is a well-known author of children’s books, and she also makes great presentations as can be seen from what follows:

"I almost heard their eyebrows arch, the silence was so great. A blind woman going around the world? What would she see? Nothing!

"'And where do you plan to go?’

"'Oh, to see the Acropolis, the Taj Mahal, the Angkor Wat, the Blue Mountains of Australia, the Maori huts of New Zealand, and perhaps a visit to the Fiji Islanders if my money holds out.’

"'Going alone? India? What if a cobra jumps out at you?’

"'It would be a trifle late to do anything then!’

"'What if some pickpocket takes your purse, with your passport and all your money?’

"'That would be more probable than the cobra jumping out at me. But I'm a match for any pickpocket.’

"'Well, you couldn't  see him.’

“That was true—but just let him try, I thought."

This little excerpt from the  opening chapter of Crooked Paths Made Straight gives you a taste of Isabelle Grant's  approach to life. She was one feisty lady! She didn't fold up when people told her no! And she certainly didn't see blindness as a barrier. When she wanted to go somewhere or do something, she went there and did it. When she retired from teaching after thirty-two years, she launched a brand-new  career as an international ambassador promoting opportunities for the blind in education and the workforce. Her achievements were recognized throughout the world, and in 1972 she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize [applause].

Isabelle Grant was born, fully sighted, in a fishing village on the Scottish coast in 1896. In 1924 she and her husband immigrated to the United States and settled in Los Angeles, where Isabelle launched a highly successful teaching career. She had a gift for languages, and she was fluent in Spanish, French, and German. In 1940 she earned a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Southern California.

In 1946 Isabelle's husband died, and she was left a widow with a young daughter to raise. Soon after, she developed acute glaucoma. She took a leave of absence from teaching to pursue medical treatment, and endured eight painful eye surgeries in an effort to save her sight. Nothing worked, and by the fall of 1948 she was totally blind.

At first she sank into despair. She believed she couldn't cook, couldn't sew, and certainly couldn't teach. Most of the people around her were quick to agree. As she said later, "They treated me as though I had lost my wits as well as my eyesight."

Finally a friend took her to meet a blind man named James Garfield, who was a member of the California affiliate of the NFB. As an aside, Garfield wrote a very popular children's book called Follow My Leader. Dr. Grant arrived unannounced at Garfield's door, and in true Federation fashion, he sat down with her and began to mentor her. After he listened to her story, he told her she should learn Braille and learn to use a long white cane. He also introduced her to NFB president Jacobus tenBroek. Dr. Grant and the tenBroeks became life-long friends.

Isabelle Grant was  a quick study. She threw herself into the work of learning the skills of blindness, and within a few months she was ready to go back to work. But the Los Angeles school system had other ideas. A county ordinance said that any teacher in the public schools had to have a visual acuity of 20/70. Dr. Grant was told she would have to retire on disability. At that point her colleagues pitched in to help. Sixty-three teachers signed an impassioned letter demanding that Dr. Grant be retained. The superintendent of schools finally gave  in, but Dr. Grant was never allowed to teach sighted students again. She was assigned to teach blind children, although she had no training or experience in that field.

Dr. Grant hadn't planned on teaching blind kids, but it quickly became her passion. In 1956 she went to Norway for an international conference on the instruction of blind students. That conference inspired her in two ways. She discovered that blindness need not stop her from traveling overseas and enjoying it immensely, and it taught her about the limited opportunities for blind students in most parts of the world. She determined to travel more widely and to learn all she could about the world's blind children and adults.

In 1959 Dr. Grant was eligible for a sabbatical leave. She spent that year taking a solo trip around the world, the trip she recounted in Crooked Paths Made Straight. She visited twenty-three countries, beginning in Great Britain—and yes, she did get to Fiji. This was at a time when it was highly unusual even for a fully sighted woman to travel alone to exotic places. For a blind woman to do so was unheard of!

She writes: "I sallied forth from California, laden with enough impedimenta for one of Caesar's soldiers on the march through Gaul. My suitcase balanced the scales at forty-four pounds. Besides a sheaf of tickets, a thick passport, health records, and a fat book of traveler's checks, I carried a heavy camel-hair coat and a velour hat. My typewriter, weighing ten pounds, was suspended from my left arm." The farther she traveled, the more impedimenta she collected.

In Rome Dr. Grant attended a conference of the World Council for the Welfare of the Blind, an organization founded in 1949. It was made up mostly of blindness professionals from various countries. At the conference Dr. Grant noticed that few blind people were present, and nearly all of them came from Europe and North America. She asked herself why weren't blind people from Africa and Asia represented? She also observed that sighted professionals were speaking for the blind, explaining what the blind should do and what would be best for them. She had been a Federationist for ten years, and she knew that blind people can make progress only when they speak for themselves. She wrote, "I believe that self-acceptance, independence, and action, underwritten by equality of opportunity, are the birthright of all blind people, just as they are for the sighted."

Of all the countries Dr. Grant visited on her first trip, Pakistan affected her most profoundly. On her sabbatical she spent six months in Karachi, studying the Urdu language and training teachers to work with blind students. She traveled the world until the end of her life in 1977, but Pakistan was her adopted home. Here's what she says about riding to an Urdu class in a motorized rickshaw. "I do not remember ever going to my lesson without the rickshaw stalling. The driver would jump out, pick up formidable pieces of iron lodged under my feet, and give a few hard knocks to the machine. On we went.

Some rickshaw drivers took joy in their speed. They had no mercy on the fare. We rattled along, dipping into every pothole. At every dip I bounced up to the canopy, and my head invariably bumped against the metal bar across the top. Hanging on grimly by the supporting bars at the side, I was like a ball bouncing inside an iron cage."

Everywhere she went, Isabelle Grant made friends and influenced people. She talked with teachers, social workers, doctors, government officials, and beggars in the street. Always she talked about the untapped potential of blind people and the contributions they could make to their countries if only they were given the chance.

Though Dr. Grant was a person of boundless warmth and generosity, she wasn't afraid   to speak her mind. Once the director of an agency for the blind in Uganda wrote and asked her how he could improve his program. She wrote back, "I find your plans admirably ambitious and comprehensive, but they are still of the old custodial care type—planning things for the blind, and as I see it, doing or trying to do something better, which should not be done at all."

The key to developing blind people's potential was education. And education was not possible unless blind people had books. After she returned to California, Dr. Grant launched a project to send used Braille books to individuals and schools, first in Pakistan, and later in dozens of other countries. She organized Federationists around the country to send her used books. She and her team of volunteers then packed the books into 15-pound cartons and shipped them overseas, along with slates and styluses, Braille paper, and other equipment. She helped blind students obtain scholarships, and she encouraged them to persevere despite every obstacle. She searched constantly for leaders and potential leaders, women and men who could develop organizations modeled upon the NFB.

Throughout the 1960s and much of the 1970s Dr. Grant traveled almost constantly. As she was about to set off on another trip, Dr. tenBroek remarked, "I feel you are like a lone eagle, flying off alone." "No," she said, "I'm not alone, for I have always the Federation behind me."

In 1964 Dr. Grant helped to found the International Federation of the Blind, or IFB, an organization that allowed blind people from around the world to share resources and ideas. Dr. tenBroek served as its president until his death in 1968. Dr. Grant served as treasurer of the IFB and edited its quarterly Braille magazine, which was published in English, French, German, and Spanish.

Crooked Paths Made Straight and Dr. Grant's other writings are filled with stories of her adventures. She did indeed encounter a pickpocket, who managed to steal some cash on a Paris street but didn't get his hands on her papers. And while she was visiting a school in the Congo a teacher suddenly screamed, "JUMP!" She didn't ask questions. She jumped and avoided stepping on a cobra.

Isabelle Grant's legacy lives on today in the lives and work of thousands of blind people whom she inspired and mentored. Nearly forty years after her death, blind people in Pakistan and India, Kenya and Ethiopia and dozens of other countries are studying and working and mentoring the next generation, following the paths that Dr. Grant made straight for them.

From the Editor: Crooked Paths Made Straight is available to purchase in EPUB or PDF from iUniverse, Kindle, and the Apple store from iBooks. It is available in standard print from Amazon and from the NFB Independence Market.

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