While the world marked International Day of Persons with Disabilities on Dec. 3, the history of people with disabilities is still not fully taught in schools. In the U.S., if American schoolchildren learn about any person with disabilities, they learn that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once had polio and used a wheelchair in office, and they learn about Deafblind activist Helen Keller.
Most students learn that Keller, born June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbia, Ala., was left deaf and blind after contracting a high fever at 19 months, and that her teacher Anne Sullivan taught her braille, lip-reading, finger spelling and eventually, how to speak. Students may watch the Oscar-winning 1962 movie The Miracle Worker, which depicts these milestones as miraculous. Keller has become a worldwide symbol for children to overcome any obstacle. At the U.S. Capitol, there is even a bronze statue of 7-year-old Keller at a water pump, inspired by the movie’s depiction of a real milestone in Keller’s life in which she recognizes water coming out of the pump after Sullivan spells the word “water” into the youngster’s hand. However, there is still a great deal about her life and her accomplishments that many people don’t know.
What scholars of disability point out is that when students learn about Helen Keller, they often learn about her efforts to communicate as a child, and not about the work she did as an adult. This limited instruction has implications for how students perceive people with disabilities.
If students learn about any of Keller’s accomplishments as an adult, they learn that she became the first Deafblind graduate of Radcliffe College (now Harvard University) in 1904, and worked for American Foundation for the Blind from the mid-1920s until her death in 1968, advocating for schools for the blind and braille reading materials.
But they don’t learn that she co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union in 1920; that she was an early supporter of the NAACP, and an opponent of lynchings; that she was an early proponent of birth control.
Sascha Cohen, who teaches American Studies at Brandeis University, and wrote the 2015 TIME article “Helen Keller’s Forgotten Radicalism”, argues that Keller’s involvement in workers’ rights can help students understand the roots of the workers’ rights and inequality issues that persist today: “The Progressive Era when she was sort of working politically in different organizations was a period of rapid industrialization and so there were these new conditions in which workers were subjected to this sort of heightened inequality and even danger and risk physically. So she pointed out that a lot of times people went blind from accidents on the shop floor. She saw this real kind of imbalance in power between the workers…and the sort of what we would call the 1% or the very few owners and managers at the top who were exploiting the workers.”
Some of the reason schools don’t teach much about Keller’s adult life is because she was involved in groups that have been perceived as too radical throughout American history. She was a member of the Socialist Party, and corresponded with Eugene Debs, the party’s most prominent member and a five-time presidential candidate. She also read Marx, and her associations with all of these far-left groups landed her on the radar of the FBI, which monitored her for ties to the Communist Party.
However, to some Black disability rights activists, like Anita Cameron, Helen Keller is not radical at all, “just another, despite disabilities, privileged white person,” and yet another example of history telling the story of privileged white Americans. Critics of Helen Keller cite her writings that reflected the popularity of now-dated eugenics theories and her friendship with one of the movement’s supporters Alexander Graham Bell. The American Foundation for the Blind archivist Helen Selsdon says Keller “moved away from that position.”
People with disabilities and activists are pushing for more education on important contributions to U.S. history by people of disabilities, such as the Capitol Crawl. On Mar. 12, 1990, Cameron and dozens of disabled people climbed up the steps of U.S. Capitol to urge the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It was considered a moment that raised awareness and helped get the law passed four months later, but one rarely included in public school education.
Thirty years later, one in four Americans have a disability. At least three other states have made efforts to incorporate disability history into school curricula. It’s the law in California and New Jersey to teach the contributions of people with disabilities, and Massachusetts guidelines urge state educators to do the same.
In Sep. 2018, the Texas Board of Education approved a draft of changes to state social studies standards, which included the removal of some historical figures, such as Helen Keller. Shortly after the board opened the draft for public comment, Haben Girma, a Black disability rights lawyer and the first Deafblind Harvard Law School graduate, was one of many who spoke out on the importance of teaching Helen Keller. Girma argued that if Keller’s life is not taught, students might not learn about any history-makers with disabilities. Two months later, the Texas Board of Education approved a revised draft with Keller’s name back in the standards.
Girma agrees that more should be done to teach the full life and career of Helen Keller, and encourages students to read more of her writings to learn more about who she was as an adult. Keller wrote 14 books and more than 475 speeches and essays.
“Since society only portrays Helen Keller as a little girl, a lot of people subconsciously learn to infantilize disabled adults. And I’ve been treated like a child. Many disabled adults have been treated like children,” Girma says. “That makes it difficult to get a job, to be treated with respect, to get good quality education and healthcare as an adult.”
Or just look back at what Keller herself articulated in her 1926 memoir My Key of Life about the impact of inclusive education: “The highest result of education is tolerance.”