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Publication: Gazette (Montreal), The add link
Issue: 26 August 2011, page A8
Title: Philip E. blazed trail for blind
Web Link: link

Philip E. blazed trail for blind

Jack Layton's great-grandfather called 'pioneer in rehabilitation' for disabled

By KATHERINE LALANCETTE, The Gazette August 26, 2011

As a young boy, Jack Layton would run through the long halls of the Montreal Association for the Blind. His father, Robert, was chairman of the board and his grandparents, Nora and Gilbert, lived just around the corner on Mayfair Ave.

"He felt it was an extension of his playground," said Christine Boyle, director general of the MAB-Mackay rehabilitation centre. "He had really fond memories here."

Back in June, when the MAB was doubling as an advance polling station, the NDP leader popped in for a surprise visit. It would be his last.

Boyle recalls the touching speech he gave during the association's centennial celebration in 2008. "He was really full of emotion," she said.

It had all begun 100 years earlier when Jack's great-grandfather, Philip Edward Layton, a blind organist born in Britain, founded the organization. It's been kept alive ever since by generations of equally social-minded Laytons.

Their portraits line the walls of the MAB and yellowed newspaper clippings serve as reminders of the association's persistent work in helping the city's visually impaired.

"The family never gave up," said John Simms, who began volunteering at the MAB as a young man in the 1950s, touched by his father's struggle with visual impairment, and later became the association's executive director.

"(The Laytons) worked so hard for the blind and always had somebody involved," he said.

"Jack's grandmother, Nora, who thought the world of him, ran the Cheerio club for the blind. It would be perhaps these people's only outing of the week and they had such a great time."

The social club lives on today, providing entertainment, bingo games and mingling opportunities for the visually impaired.

"The whole family would also come at Christmas time, and they'd visit the people in the residence," Simms continued, remembering how Jack's mother, Doris, would always bring the ice cream for the banquet.

"And along came Jack, and much in line with his father, Bob, who was one of my best friends, started to give a lot of energy to people in need."

Jack's sister, Nancy, who followed him on the campaign trail as his personal assistant in the spring, is still involved with the MAB, continuing the family tradition.

It trails back to Philip E., who lost his sight from a woodcutting accident as a teenager. He crossed over to Montreal on a steamboat in 1887 and soon opened up a piano business downtown.

It survives to this day as Layton Audio, an audio equipment shop on the corner of Ste. Catherine and Stanley Sts.

But it seems success was nothing without love, as Layton soon sailed back to England to marry Alice Gilbert, the nurse who had cared for him after his injury. Together they returned to Montreal and set up the MAB. Legend has it Layton was horrified by how the blind struggled to eke out a living in the city, and decided he simply had to do something about it.

The association opened its doors on Sherbrooke St. W. two days after Easter in 1908.

It featured a braille lending library, a social club and a workshop.

"(The blind) made brooms and mops, and went door to door to sell these household items because Philip E. Layton didn't want people to pity the blind, he wanted the blind to work and make their own living," said Nicole Halpert, communications adviser for MAB-Mackay. Some of these brooms are now displayed in the building's entrance, along with vintage white canes and a hand-written note from Helen Keller.

"(Philip E. Layton) was one of the pioneers in rehabilitation to give autonomy to the handicapped," Halpert said.

Mike Ciarciello is a proud product of that revolutionary approach.

He was born blind and was only five years old when his parents brought him to live in the MAB's boarding school.

"They felt it was more of a family-type environment and there wasn't any other place at the time to take care of someone who was totally blind and get them ready to go to regular school," Ciarciello said. "It got me to be very independent."

He felt so strongly about the association, he decided to return as an educator, teaching the visually impaired how to use adapted computers. He is also an accomplished musician and a living example of what Jack's great-grandfather set out to achieve.

"Philip E. Layton and all of his descendants believed in rehabilitation and social integration, and that people, even if they have a visual impairment, can be full members of society," Boyle said.

In 2006, the MAB merged with the Mackay Rehabilitation Centre and now assists over 6000 people every year. The organization provides therapy and adaptive services to individuals with visual, speech, language and hearing impairments. It also helps them find jobs, houses two special needs schools and offers activities of all kinds, including self-defence classes and group counselling.

"If it wasn't for the Layton family, the visually impaired of all ages in Montreal wouldn't be as well served as they are today," said Boyle, noting how the centre helped her own grandmother cope with blindness. "With Jack's passing, there was a lot of sadness here. We feel like we've lost a little piece of ourselves."


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