The Useful Citizen

A 10-year-old boy called Charlie – regarded by Alexander Graham Bell as the most wonderful boy in the world – went on to become the first deafblind person to study at a Canadian university.

A blind person can study by listening, a deaf person can learn by seeing, but what of the person who is both deaf and blind? This is the story of Charles Allen Crane, Canada’s Helen Keller.

The world thought it was ready for Charles when he was born in Toronto on April 10, 1906. His six older brothers and sisters had awaited his arrival with anxious enthusiasm. Charlie, as they called him, was a healthy, good-natured baby who loved every bit of attention his family lavished on him. He reached all the usual milestones on schedule – cooing and babbling, smiling, crawling, growing – until he was nine months old and contracted cerebrospinal meningitis, a vicious disease that can kill within hours.

If you shook hands with Charlie once, he’d recognize you immediately the next time you gave him your hand, even years later.

Charlie survived, but the disease had ravaged his optic and auditory nerves. His distraught parents, Minnie and William, made the rounds of the country’s best doctors, but no one could help. In desperation, they booked passage on a ship to England, where they took Charlie to the country’s top specialists but, in late January 1908, they returned to Canada, resigned to the awful reality: their beloved little boy would never again see or hear.


Children like Charlie, who acquire this double disability prior to the age of two, are known as “congenitally deafblind.” Their experience of the world has more in common with that of children born deafblind, than with those who become deafblind at a later age. They often develop a heightened sense of touch to help navigate the world around them. If you shook hands with Charlie once, he’d recognize you immediately the next time you gave him your hand, even years later. He could identify the colour of someone’s hair by its texture, though he lacked the concept of colour as sighted people know it. “He was so smart,” says his niece, Iris Lees, “you couldn’t fool him with anything.” Iris remembers how, as an adult, he’d walk about in her yard feeling the plants with his hands and know exactly which species they were.

Charlie had a talent for communicating. With his mother’s help, he developed a rudimentary sign language. Only the family understood it, but it was enough to get by. When he was five, the family moved to Vancouver. Minnie and William consulted BC’s Superintendent of Education, Dr. Robinson, who put them in touch with the School for the Deaf in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The School mailed Minnie and William a copy of their annual report, which featured a depiction of the manual alphabet. The family immediately began spelling their names into his hand, including that of Charlie’s little brother, Tom, their brown cat, Bill, and their grey dog, Prince, followed by familiar household items. Charlie loved it.

If he suspects you are fooling him, up, like a flash, goes his hand to your throat to find out whether or not you are laughing.

Children develop language skills easily, but Charlie wasn’t being exposed to the underlying nuances of everyday spoken language. When the boy was finally admitted to the Halifax School for the Deaf, just after his 10th birthday, Principal James Fearon reported that he had, “strictly speaking, no language.” That quickly changed when Charlie began classes, becoming, according to Fearon, one of the fastest learners the school had ever known. An article written later that year and published in a Halifax newspaper boasted that “Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, perhaps the greatest authority today on the education of the deaf, regards Charlie Crane as the most wonderful boy in the world.” Many people, including Bell, compared Charlie with Helen Keller.

A handsome, energetic boy, strong and tall for his age, Charlie thrived at the Halifax school and showed a keen sense of humour. “If he suspects you are fooling him,” Fearon said, “up, like a flash, goes his hand to your throat to find out whether or not you are laughing.” Once a word was spelt for Charlie, he never forgot it. Fearon had instructed the teachers to spell into Charlie’s hand the very words they would say to him were he not deafblind, and the results were extraordinary. “In this natural manner,” Fearon notes in his 1916 year-end report, “he must have acquired in the six months he has been here a vocabulary of at least two thousand words as well as endless question forms which he thoroughly understands and uses.”

By then, Charlie had learned to use both a manual typewriter and a Brailler. His typing speed wasn’t remarkable, but his accuracy would become legendary. Even more amazing, he had learned to speak, in a clear, pleasant voice. He pronounced all the sounds of the English language correctly, with the exception of “dzh” (J). With one hand, he’d feel his teacher’s throat as she articulated a word. With the other he would feel the movements of her lips and tongue. Then he’d mimic the muscle action he had observed. Once Charlie could say the word properly, he would be taught its meaning.

Shruti Shravah, born with partial vision, was “a strict Braille reader” when she entered UBC in 2007.Shruti was thrilled when she discovered “this giant library of Braille books.” At the Crane, she’s been able to get Braille copies of all the books required for her 17th, 18th and 19th century literature courses. “I don’t think anything could ever replace Braille for me,” she says. “Nothing compares to having the hard copy in front of you, and being able to read along with the class.” (Photo: Geoff Lister)

Charlie returned to Vancouver in 1922 to begin secondary school at the British Columbia School for the Deaf and the Blind on Jericho Hill. His family moved to Garibaldi so, once again, Charlie was a fulltime boarder. He wasn’t much good at math, but compensated by excelling in history, literature, French, Latin and botany.

Charlie yearned for a university education. In the Introduction to her 1926 book The Silent Zone, Annie Dalton quotes Charlie’s words to a friend: “You ask me what is my great ambition? I have been very fortunate so far in receiving a fair education, but I dread to think of my being checked in my desire for more advanced studies. My hope is... to take up the University course in British Columbia... and duly receive my degree in arts... After that, I should like to become a useful citizen.”

Charlie’s personal library at this time consisted of just four titles, all in Braille: Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, Treasure Island, The Book of Psalms, and Lorna Doone. In 1927, he began acquiring quantities of Braille books from publishing houses in England, Scotland and the US. He became a voracious reader and collected English classics, all the classics available in Braille that had been translated into English from Greek and Latin, historical works, dictionaries, and books about botany and medicine. He personally transcribed into Braille dozens of volumes, most in English and at least one in Latin, in a wide variety of subjects. This he did with the assistance of a reader, who would spell the printed book into his hand, letter by letter. Charlie would patiently type the book on his Brailler then have the sheets professionally bound. He wrote a detailed description of his library for the June, 1962, New Beacon, closing with, “Vita sine litteris mors est,” meaning, “Life without literature is death.”

He joined the classics club and the wrestling club, and exercised fearlessly on the rings and bars at the gym.

UBC accepted Charlie into first year arts when he graduated from high school in 1931, and the Government of BC awarded him a $600 scholarship towards fees and expenses. An “intervener” was hired, to spell out lectures, and guide him around campus.

Charlie Crane pictured in The Ubyssey (January 29, 1932)

The first deafblind student to study at a Canadian university, Charlie embraced UBC, signing up for English literature, English composition, Greek history, sociology, and Latin. He took to smoking a pipe, and loved a good game of chess. He joined the classics club and the wrestling club, and exercised fearlessly on the rings and bars at the gym. Several Ubyssey articles that semester boasted about Charlie, touting his knowledge of classical literature and history, and his “courage, sportsmanship and Varsity spirit.” Columnist Ronald Grantham described him as one of UBC’s keenest new students. “His handicap is very severe,” wrote Grantham, “but, like Helen Keller, he has learned to speak – and he possesses a very active mind... His industry and intense interest will ensure him academic success.”

But the world of academia wasn’t ready for Charles. The university wasn’t equipped to accommodate a person with his degree of disability, and one year was all UBC could give him. Completing a degree would have meant hiring a team of interveners to spell out the lectures – not just in class but for hours afterwards, because manual spelling takes so much longer than speech. In addition, there was no mechanism to allow for extra examination time. It would have taken hours for an intervener to spell out the exam questions to Charlie, and many more for him to spell back his responses and for the intervener to write them down.

This was the fate he had dreaded, yet he accepted it with grace. In an article published in October 1931 in The Province he wrote, “I do not intend to acquire a full college education, but my main reason for taking a term at the university is that I am anxious to befit myself for a profitable career, whereby I would not only earn a good salary, but also be of assistance to others... I would come out of the University wiser, more independent both in action and in thought and a friend better disposed to others.”

The last mention of Charlie in The Ubyssey came in late January, 1932. It was a plea for money to augment “The Charlie Crane Education Fund.” Charlie’s father, who built the Alpine Lodge and Store in Garibaldi, had passed away in 1929. These were Depression years and, although Charlie’s brothers were making a go of the business, they were either unable or unwilling to give him the financial support that may, conceivably, have enabled him to carry on at UBC.

Charlie had a flair for writing and his goal was to enter some sort of journalistic or public relations work. Immediately after he left UBC, the Vancouver Welfare Federation hired him as a publicist. The position ended, however, after just one year, and Charlie spent the rest of his working days making brooms at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. “It’s a really sad thing that this incredibly brilliant man ended up in a CNIB sheltered workshop,” says Paul Thiele, who met Charlie in his later years, “but the interesting thing is, he was so people-oriented, so outgoing, that he didn’t mind at all – he loved it!”

Charlie spent the rest of his working days making brooms at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.

By all accounts, Charlie was a happy man, and he was certainly in his element in any social situation. But a poignant letter to the editor, which appeared in The Province on December 12, 1949, showed another side of things: “Please note, dear readers, that this is from a man who, though in good health, is both deaf and blind. Because of my double handicap, I am left practically alone – in fact, extremely lonely... If there is anyone among you who will make my acquaintance, why not come and see me any time? ... Charles Allen Crane, 2318 Macdonald St, Vancouver.”

By the time Charlie passed away in 1965, he had amassed what was believed to be the largest personal Braille library in the world: an estimated 10,700 volumes. In 1967, in accordance with his will, this library was donated to UBC, forming the nucleus of Access & Diversity’s Crane Library. Paul Thiele, who is visually impaired, was a doctoral student at UBC when he founded the Crane Library with his new bride, Judy – Canada’s first blind person to graduate in Library Science. He also developed the Crane Production Facility, where an army of volunteers creates a new talking book every three weeks.

His legacy is invaluable to visually impaired university students at UBC and around the world.

In addition to the library and recording studios, the Crane features a reading room, a lounge, and a lab with e-text readers, which scan and read aloud textbooks and assignments to students with disabilities. As part of UBC’s Access & Diversity service, the Crane provides materials in Braille, audio, large print and e-text formats to all qualifying students at UBC, and at educational institutions elsewhere in Canada and in many other countries through inter-library loan.

Charles Crane didn’t achieve his “great ambition” to finish university (it would be another 40 years before a deafblind person graduated from a Canadian university) and he didn’t become, in his lifetime, what most people might consider “a useful citizen.” Yet his legacy is invaluable to visually impaired university students at UBC and around the world.

Not long before he passed away, Charlie took a two-week vacation at the CNIB Lodge on Bowen Island. Paul Thiele, the recreation director at the lodge, took a group of blind vacationers on a nature walk, including Charlie who, by then, had lost his ability to speak from lack of practice. Through his intervener, Charlie knew that his companions were putting their arms around some trees to get a sense of their size. He asked what kind of trees they were, and Thiele made a guess. “Maples,” he said. Charlie put his arms around one of the trees, and the group resumed their walk. When they returned to the lodge, Charlie sent Thiele a beautifully typed note, thanking him profusely for the outing, then adding: “From the depth and texture of the bark and its moisture and the size of the leaves, I deduce that the tree couldn’t have been a maple. I assume it was a Platanus acerifolia (London planetree.)”

“And I knew then that I’d been told, nicely, not to make things up,” says Thiele. “I’d been put in my place by a great man.”