When I was in grade school, I was trying to come to terms with my disability. I knew that I had a disability, but I fought against the perceived social implications of disability as unproductive or an object to be pitied (that’s a story for another day). I was a curious child who loved to read and try and find answers to my questions about life and the world around me. I wanted to know if other disabled people had similar life experiences to me. So, my curiosity and desire to learn introduced me to Helen Keller.
Helen Keller was a Deafblind woman, who in many ways, was a disability rights pioneer. Nowadays, she is best known as the punchline to a meme claiming that Helen Keller did not exist on TikTok. Similar to how saying something ironically can easily become part of one’s vocabulary over time, this meme has been taken as fact by numerous people. As one of my first disabled role models, the denial of her existence hurts me.
Before the days of TikTok, Helen Keller gave me a sense of belonging. The two of us have different disabilities, but there was a sense of congruency with our narratives. We shared the knowledge of knowing we were different than other people, but were unable to pinpoint exactly when it began. Helen Keller’ s anger as a child resonated with my own. Like hers, my anger stemmed from being left out and misunderstood. Both Helen Keller and I shared affection for our therapists who gave us a way to better understand how we operated in the world.
While therapist is not often a word attributed to Anne Sullivan, in retrospect she was a therapist akin to the physical therapists and occupational therapists for physically disabled people. Anne Sullivan taught her to fingerspell and read braille (to name a few) which opened doors for her and contributed to her success later in life. My physical therapists helped me to walk and strengthen my balance. My occupational therapists helped me to hold a pencil, write legibly and type. All of these things have helped to succeed in life. Furthermore, my physical and occupational therapists provided space for me to talk about my disability and ask questions about it. I felt uncomfortable talking about my disability to my family and friends. I thought that if I talked to them about it, it would be failing their image of me. On the other hand, I was afraid they would dismiss my words for complaining or fishing for compliments. I suspect that Helen Keller felt a similar way. Her parents and family had an image of her that was different than Sullivan’s image of her.
On a broad scale, Helen Keller defied what the image of a disabled person was back then. She was a college graduate, author and activist. The notion that disabled people are underwhelming as a group and individually will not amount to much, was more pervasive than it is today. Helen Keller was one of the first people to teach me that disabled people do not have to conform to societal expectations. According to a Time article, her legacy includes being co-founder of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), her commitment to being antiracist as well as her turn away from eugenicist ideologies she was taught in her childhood. To summarize her legacy as a meme is not only insulting, but is an understatement.
I enjoy memes and jokes as much as the next person (I like making people laugh and I have made memes on occasion) , but there is a point where it is not a joke anymore. This meme has circulated to point that people actually believe that Helen Keller did not exist. Disabled people have been routinely erased from history, but I have to say this one takes the cake. Helen Keller is one of the most well known disabled people in U.S. history and some people believe her life was a conspiracy at best. People have doubted her accomplishments, even going as far to accuse her of being a fraud. Why?
It has to do with ableism. People refuse to believe that a disabled person could be accomplished. Disabled people are routinely used by non-disabled people as way to feel better about themselves. When that does not work, it is easier to forget that a disabled person existed than come to terms it. Disabled people are forced to walk the line between being “too” disabled (which will get them written off as objects of pity) and superseding non-disabled people’s expectations (which will get them written off as above their disability or denial of their disability all together). For some people, Helen Keller takes it one step further: she does not exist at all.
Helen Keller’s existence and legacy is bigger than claims that say otherwise. Helen Keller was one of the disability advocates that helped me to feel affirmed in my existence in this world. In turn I will affirm hers; Helen Keller existed. Let me be clear: Helen Keller was a disabled person and she was not more or less of a person because of her disabilities. Her existence, life and legacy mattered then, it matters today and will continue to matter in years to come.