Joanne Malatesta Davidoff, 88, of Wyndmoor, a blind woman who devoted her life to teaching and advocating for the blind, died Wednesday, July 11, of renal failure at Jefferson Health Hospice at Warminster.
Mrs. Davidoff lost her sight at age 3 due to a medical condition, her family said.
Blindness created opportunities for Mrs. Davidoff, who saw herself as uniquely suited to speak out for other blind people and to create settings in which they could thrive.
Along the way, she broke barriers. She was the first blind student to graduate in the 1950s at Chestnut Hill College, the Temple University Alumni Review wrote in an October 1962 profile.
While there, she won a beauty contest for blind women in 1952. The prize was a two-week tour of New York and Bermuda; the sponsor was the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia.
She pioneered as the first blind nursery-school teacher in the nation, the Alumni Review wrote. When she applied for the job in 1954, educators viewed the idea as “noble but untenable,” the bulletin said.
She proved educators wrong by devising a system of touch to communicate with blind students. Everything that happened in her classroom was a form of learning. The activities were varied and short. Students were taught to sit still, count and spell, and to familiarize themselves with braille blocks as preparation for reading.
“Touch the sky, children, touch the sky,” she told the students during outside play sessions.
Mrs. Davidoff founded and ran Upsal Day School, the first day school for blind preschoolers in the city. The facility on Upsal Street in Germantown was dedicated in November 1961.
Mrs. Davidoff taught at the Upsal school until July 1969. The school thrived, said her daughter, Cyndi Bernstiel. Then Mrs. Davidoff put her career on hold to start a family.
“It wasn’t by choice. Catholic Charities told her they would only let her adopt a baby (me) as a blind mother if she quit working,” Bernstiel said. “Her career meant everything to her. She adored taking care of other people’s children but yearned for one of her own.”
In 1973, Mrs. Davidoff had a biological son, Michael.
She resumed her career in the early 1980s and taught at Overbrook School for the Blind for more than 20 years until the late 2000s when she retired. By the time she rejoined the workforce, Upsal Day School had closed.
Mrs. Davidoff supported the rights of not only blind children, but also blind adults.
She served in leadership roles for the Associated Services for the Blind & Visually Impaired, Braille Revival League, Catholic League for People with Disabilities, Pennsylvania Council of the Blind, National Exhibit by Blind Artists, and the Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired. She also did fund-raising and public relations.
“This is the main thrust,” she told the Chestnut Hill Local in 1985, “to help people who are blind go out into this world and be a part of it. We need to help the public understand that people with visual losses are just people like everyone else. If they want to do something badly enough, they will find a way to do it.”
Mrs. Davidoff received many honors, including in October 2000, when she was honored as a past board president by the Associated Services for the Blind. The organization is in Center City.
Born in Canton, Ohio, Mrs. Davidoff’s parents moved to Philadelphia so she could attend Overbrook School for the Blind, from which she graduated in 1950. After Chestnut Hill College, she earned a master’s degree from Temple University and advanced certification from Catholic University, both in special education.
Mrs. Davidoff was married to Ira J. Davidoff. When the children were young, the couple separated and then divorced. He died in 2005.
“She raised us both on her own,” Bernstiel said. Despite the impediments she faced, there was an undercurrent of humor in the household. “She was very funny,” Bernstiel said. “She loved David Letterman.”
In addition to her son, Michael, and daughter, Cyndi, Mrs. Davidoff is survived by five grandchildren.
A visitation from 9 to 11 a.m. Monday, July 16, will be followed by an 11 a.m. Funeral Mass at St. Genevieve Church, 1225 Bethlehem Pike, Flourtown. Interment is private.