Feature Writer Terri Winaught – A Silent Brilliance

“He’s the most wonderful little boy in the world!” Alexander Graham Bell said of the then ten year old Charles Allen Crane of Canada. Just what caused this gifted inventor to make that statement, and who was Charles Allen Crane?

Charles Allen Crane, or Charlie as he was often called, was born in Toronto, Canada on April 10, 1906. His 6 older brothers and sisters had eagerly looked forward to the baby’s arrival, and he was pleasant and went through all of the normal developmental milestones of babbling, cooing, and crawling. Something totally unexpected happened, though, when Charlie was 9 months old; he developed cerebrospinal meningitis, a disease so severe that it can kill within hours.

Although baby Charlie survived, his auditory and visual nerves were permanently damaged, leaving him both totally deaf and blind. Totally distraught, Charlie’s parents visited not only the top specialists in their native Canada but also in England. Having been told that nothing could be done, the parents taught the boy a rudimentary sign language which only they understood.

At age 10, Crane was admitted to the School for the Deaf in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Though the youngster had no vocabulary at that time, he learned the manual alphabet so quickly that his vocabulary exceeded 2,000 words within 6 months.

Like all of us, there were subjects, like Math, in which ten year old Charlie did not excel, but he more than compensated through his excellence in English, Greek history, Latin, and botany. In botany, for example, Crane could touch a plant just briefly and be able to identify its species. Similarly, when it came to meeting people, “you could shake Charlie’s hand just once, and he would remember you years later,” several people, including his sister said about him.

After graduating high school in British Columbia, Crane attended the University of British Columbia (UBC), where he was a student for only one year because funds ran out for Charlie to keep using an “intervener.” (That word was used to describe an individual who spelled the manual alphabet into Charlie’s hand and, in turn, used Charlie’s responses for lectures and exams.)

Although Charles’ university studies were followed by employment as a publicist, that, too, lasted only a year, after which he worked the rest of his life making brooms in a sheltered workshop. Though this accomplished and well educated adult was generally a happy man who loved what he did, he nonetheless published a poignant piece in a 1949 newspaper in which Charles described himself as being “in fairly good health, but having the double disabilities of deafness and blindness and longing for communication with others.” He went on to describe himself as both lonely and alone, even giving his address should anyone wish to visit him at any time.

Until his death from pneumonia in 1965, Charles immersed himself in books, more than 10,000 of which were donated to a library and disability support center named in his honor at the University of British Columbia. That facility is one where there is a recording studio, a reading room, Braille materials, and E-text readers, all due to the legacy of someone who once wrote that he wanted to be a “good citizen.”

Although it would be another 40 years before another deaf/blind person would enroll at the University of British Columbia, I wouldn’t be surprised if that individual and future students will forever consider him a “good citizen” who left a truly rich legacy.

Source: A Good Citizen: May 2013 issue of Trek Magazine with photos by Geoff Lister.

If any of our Canadian readers especially know Charles Allen Crane or knew of him before reading this article, we’d love to hear from you in the Reader’s Forum.

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