Why Is Helen Keller The Only Blind Person Anyone Knows?

14 Apr

Today’s post is adapted from a presentation by Mike Hudson—the director of the museum at the American Printing House for the Blind in Louisville, Ky—to a recent meeting of the National Federation of the Blind of Greater Louisville. Founded in 1858, APH embosses more than 16 million pages of braille, prints better than 14 million pages of large print, we record hundreds of talking book titles, and we manufacture hundreds of educational and daily living aids every year. The APH museum celebrated its 20th year anniversary this past Fall, and the team developed accessible, traveling exhibits to bring the history of blindness education to those unable to visit the APH in person.

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

  1. We know blindness scares people.
    According to the 2010 Eye on Eyesight Survey, 79 thou—79% 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”.

  2. We know that most sighted people don’t know anyone who’s blind or visually impaired.

  3. We know that mostly blind folks know about the history of education for the blind. For most sighted people, blindness education can be summarized in 3 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 50 years after her death, it will still be Helen Keller. The other answers will be scattered amongst just a few chart topping musicians; Ray Charles, Ronnie Millsap, Stevie Wonder, or 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.

Now Helen, of course, lost her sight and hearing as an infant. she 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 reading the braille alphabet and finger spelling with American Sign Language, the world became her oyster. She became one of the most amazing women of the 20th century in terms of her accomplishments.

But she did have a few things going for her.

First, Helen was good looking.

She was a pretty little girl with few scarring cosmetic disfigurements associated with 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 fitted with perfectly normal looking glass replacements.

Second, she came from a wealthy family able to provide her with the best of everything, at least during her childhood.

She had a family with broad social contacts that could introduce their daughter to other influential people who could ease her passage to an unfriendly world. She’s perfectly dressed in all her photos, not a lovely curl out of place, nothing that suggests disability, or poverty, or anything threatening to Victorian sensibilities. Even after she and Anne 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 were reporting 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 was using her story literally to advance their own development and fundraising efforts. Alexander Graham Bell, the influential inventor of the telephone and close friend of the Keller family, declared Helen’s abilities miraculous to anyone who would listen. Her autobiography was serialized in the “Lady’s Home Journal” when she was only 22 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. She was, by the way, an unabashed socialist. It’s a fact that’s overlooked in most tellings of her story. In fact, the Nazis burned her books in Germany in the 1930s. I don’t know about you, but I think it’s a pretty good day when Hitler unfriends you on Facebook!

Helen’s work as a fundraiser for the American Foundation for the Blind put her in front of cheering crowds across America and the world.

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.” —Helen Keller
  • “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.” —Helen Keller
  • “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.” —Helen Keller

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 strife or ability. And so as we seek for a way to tell the story of education for 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 barrier posed by blindness and deafness.

We thought 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 than they are now. Blind people, whether it was from injury or genetics, were broadly thought of as cursed, unlucky, unproductive, helpless, a burden on society, useless — 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 was swept away by the fall of the Roman Empire. Martin Luther wrote, “Regardless… 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.

So, 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, and mind numbing committee meetings, and efforts that fail in small ways, and succeed in small ways, these will never make the history books.

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

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