The Dallas Morning News reported in September that the Texas School Board is considering removing Helen Keller from its Grade 3 social studies curriculum. Helen Keller was the most influential person with a disability in the 20th century, having changed public perceptions of what it means to be blind, as well as the real, everyday lives of those living with vision loss. To remove her from the curriculum is to ignore a fundamental portion of our country’s history and to lose a golden opportunity to inspire and teach the next generation of Americans the value of inclusion and service, the power of diverse perspectives, and the importance of standing up for your beliefs. As president and CEO of the American Foundation for the Blind, where Keller worked for 44 years, I urge the Texas School Board to keep Keller in the curriculum when they vote on this and other issues this week.
The Texas board-nominated volunteers who made the recommendation to omit Keller wrote, “Helen Keller does not best represent the concept of citizenship.” This is simply not true. Very few men or women have directly improved the lives of millions of their fellow citizens; Keller did. The scope of Keller’s life and achievements is immeasurable. She fought for the disenfranchised and those without a voice: she spoke out for workers’ rights, women’s suffrage, schools for blind children, and rehabilitation services for veterans who had lost their sight in battle. Consider the following:
- Between 1931 and 1947, Keller personally appeared before at least 13 state legislatures, including the Texas State Legislature, petitioning for the creation of State Commissions for the Blind and the construction of schools for those with vision loss.
- At the federal level she successfully lobbied the government to print and distribute books in braille for use by blind adults across the United States.
- From 1942-1944, she supported Senator Robert Wagner’s efforts to secure funding for the rehabilitation, special vocational training, placement, and supervision of blind persons, including veterans blinded in World War II.
The impact of Keller’s life on schoolchildren is profound. Just five months ago, as part of our public launch of the new Helen Keller Archive — a tremendous educational tool in its own right — we visited the New York State Institute for Special Education and introduced the online archive to a class of visually impaired fifth graders. Said one student: “Helen Keller means the world to blind, visually impaired or deaf people. Because she fought for our rights. She helped us to be like everybody else.”
Children who are blind or deafblind have the right to see themselves in history, and children who are sighted or hearing deserve to know what people with disabilities have achieved. Those with disabilities have for too long been omitted from the historical debate. Perhaps Keller herself put it best when she wrote: “History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas.”
With the rest of the nation watching, the Texas Board of Education faces a crucial vote. We remain optimistic the board will do the right thing, and will keep one of our country’s most notable citizens of the twentieth century in the curriculum.