American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Special Issue: Early Childhood      PERSPECTIVES

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Why Is Helen Keller the Only Blind Person Anyone Knows?

by Mike Hudson

Reprinted from the Blog on Blindness, blog.pdrib.com, April 14, 2015

Helen KellerFrom the Editor: This article is adapted from a presentation given at a meeting of the Greater Louisville Chapter of the NFB of Kentucky. Mike Hudson is the director of the museum at the American Printing House for the Blind in Louisville.

Founded in 1858, the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) embosses more than 16 million pages of Braille and better than 14 million pages of large print a year. We record hundreds of Talking Book titles, and we manufacture hundreds of educational and daily-living aids annually. The APH museum celebrated its twentieth anniversary this past fall, and the team developed accessible, traveling exhibits to bring the history of blindness education to those unable to visit APH in person.

When we first started asking ourselves how to market education for the blind to the broader public, we began with what we knew—or what we thought we knew.

We know blindness scares people. According to the 2010 Eye on Eyesight Survey, 79 percent of Americans say that other than their own death or the death of a loved one, losing their eyesight is "the worst thing that could happen to me."

We know that most sighted people don't know anyone who's blind.

We know that blind folks are the people who know about the history of education for the blind. For most sighted people, blindness education can be summarized in three short words: The Miracle Worker. Those moments in front of the water pump between a young teacher and her bewildered student in Tuscumbia, Alabama, have burned an indelible image into the imaginations of generation after generation of sighted Americans. Ask most Americans to name a famous blind person, or any blind person, and, almost fifty years after her death, it will still be Helen Keller. The other answers will be scattered amongst a few chart-topping musicians: Ray Charles, Ronnie Milsap, Stevie Wonder, and Doc Watson (one of the bluegrass guys).
Helen Keller's story and her career as a writer, activist, and professional fundraiser for the American Foundation for the Blind cast a shadow across the past so large that it almost seems there's no room for any more stories.

Helen lost her sight and hearing as an infant. Using techniques learned during her own schooling at the Perkins School for the Blind, Helen's legally blind teacher, Anne Sullivan, was able to break through to the girl's amazing mind and teach her the concept of language. Once Helen had language through Braille and finger spelling with American Sign Language, the world became her oyster. In terms of her accomplishments she became one of the most amazing women of the twentieth century. But she had a few things going for her.

First, Helen was good-looking. She was a pretty little girl with few scarring cosmetic disfigurements associated with her blindness, and she grew up into a pretty young woman. Most of the famous photographs of Keller as a young girl were carefully staged, always shot from angles that concealed her less attractive left eye. Later in life, she had her eyes enucleated and was fitted with perfectly normal-looking glass replacements.

Second, she came from a wealthy family that was able to provide her with the best of everything, at least during her childhood. Her parents had broad social contacts that could introduce their daughter to influential people who could ease her passage into an unfriendly world. Helen is perfectly dressed in all of her photos. Not a lovely curl is out of place. Nothing suggests disability or poverty or anything threatening to Victorian sensibilities. Even after she and Anne Sullivan were stumping the vaudeville circuit and lecturing to women's clubs across America, raising money for the American Foundation for the Blind, an amazing segment of their household budget went to elegant clothes. Helen Keller looked successful because she could afford to look successful. It was very intentional.

Third, she had an amazing publicity machine behind her. From the beginning, leaders at the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston reported her successes as confirmation of the possibilities of their modern educational techniques. Those reports found their way into newspapers and magazines eager for a good story. And, of course, Perkins used her story to advance its own development and fundraising efforts.

Alexander Graham Bell, the influential inventor of the telephone and a close friend of the Keller family, declared Helen's abilities miraculous to anyone who would listen. Keller's autobiography was serialized in the Ladies' Home Journal when she was only twenty-two years of age, and it was reprinted multiple times after it appeared in bound form in 1903.

Helen Keller knew presidents, writers, and world leaders. Her work as a fundraiser for the American Foundation for the Blind put her in front of cheering crowds across America and the world. She was, by the way, an unabashed Socialist—a fact that's overlooked in most tellings of her story. In fact, the Nazis burned her books in Germany during the 1930s. I don't know about you, but I think it's a pretty good day when Hitler unfriends you on Facebook!

Fourth, and finally, Helen Keller was a genius. She really knew how to string words together into a great quote. I'll share three of my favorites

"Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much."

"I'm only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do."

"Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing."

By the time Helen Keller died in 1968, she was the most famous blind person the world had ever known and one of the most famous women of any stripe or ability. And so as we sought for a way to tell the story of education of the blind and to market that story to an oblivious world, we finally succumbed to the charisma that is Helen. We decided to use Helen Keller's story as a lens to explore the roots of education for people who are blind or visually impaired.

Anne Sullivan was writing to her mentor at the Perkins School, Michael Anagnos, in 1891 about her work with Helen. She wrote, "For the first two years of her intellectual life, she was like a child in a strange country." Anne realized that no learning was possible until Helen could overcome the communication barriers posed by blindness and deafness. We decided that was a good metaphor for all education. We're all, at some point, children in a strange country, unable to understand what we're trying to be taught, until the teacher finds that special language that reaches out to us.

Our traveling exhibit, "Child in a Strange Country," uses Helen's story as a lens to explore the gap between a population that knows only one moment, that moment at the water pump.

There's not nearly enough room for all the events that have shaped the history of education and rehabilitation over the last few centuries. Any good story starts out with "once upon a time." Once upon a time, things were much different from what they are now. Blind people, whether blind from injury or genetics, were broadly thought of as cursed, unlucky, unproductive, helpless, useless burdens on society—do I need to go on? At any time before 1800, their likely occupation outside the family group was primarily in roadside philanthropy. Now there were a few Greek philosophers, such as Hypocrites, who argued for a rational understanding of disease and disability, but most of that thinking was swept away by the fall of the Roman Empire. Martin Luther wrote, "regarding all illness and disease as being the works of Satan." Anyone who argued for the rights of the disabled could be accused of witchcraft and sin.

If Helen Keller's story is a juicy way to start a dialogue between the sighted world and that of folks with the physical limitation of vision loss, we also have to acknowledge that, for every eureka moment at the water pump, there are countless moments of quiet despair and frustration. There are mind-numbing committee meetings and efforts that fail in small ways and succeed in small ways. These will never make the history books.

A pretty girl and the magic of a eureka moment trump a history book every time.

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