Thanks, Helen!

Even though I am blind, I never really gave much thought to the iconic trailblazer of more than one hundred years ago. I am speaking, of course, of Helen Keller. Her story became mythic with the publication of her memoir, a standard for reading lists in classrooms around the world for almost a century, and the book and film, “The Miracle Worker,” chronicling her integration into society as told through the eyes of her teacher and companion, Annie Sullivan.

Recently, I was invited to participate in a legacy retrospective that is being prepared to celebrate Helen’s life and honor the groundbreaking work she did to help create the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), which is celebrating its centennial this year. As I prepared for the interview, I considered what Helen might make of us these days, the 61 million Americans with disabilities, in the modern world as it is shaping up in the face of the pandemic, the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, and so much more.

So indulge me, a little anyway, as I imagine Helen, in a place of splendor and repose, witnessing our current lives, and well, dilemmas. From wherever that may be, does she have a smile on her face? Is she celebrating this centennial with pride, perhaps marveling at how far we have come in these hundred years? What words of wisdom, encouragement, or warning would she have for our community, still facing an ever-shrinking environment where many of the challenges she faced in her day continue to some extent?

I think if we are to spin this tale along, that Helen would indulge in a reserved smile while reminding us of the importance of our place in history and sometimes, the need to fight against societal constraints of the day. One of the truly remarkable elements of her life was the extent of her accomplishment at a time when American culture loaded the odds against her ever-learning to communicate, never mind rising to international fame as a female civil rights leader and deep intellectual.

Just imagine Helen Keller, born in the deep south during America’s reconstruction from the bitter Civil War, child of the Confederacy, robbed of her sight and hearing at the age of only two years! But for the determination of her loving mother, she surely would have languished in an institution, and she writes about those who wanted to abandon her to a life of miserable imprisonment. How challenging it must have been for her to struggle to communicate and understand her environment in those early years, where her garden was her only ally. Imagine the work that she had to undertake to begin the learning process with her teacher, as they constructed their own unique language with tactile features, eventually enabling Helen to not only communicate but to graduate from the most esteemed women’s college of her day, Radcliffe, the sister school to Harvard.

Let’s not forget that Helen Keller was also born a girl in a time when women didn’t even have the right to vote, and the biased and stigmatizing assumptions about women of any age rendered opportunities to thrive as an intellectual almost nil. So looking back, I marvel at how, in her time in history, Helen Keller did thrive, not only as a person with disabilities that would historically have resulted in institutionalization, but also as a person of intellect and opinion, respected for her insight in a time when women were largely discounted as irrelevant, relegated to the “female” pursuits of house, home, or teaching.

That Helen Keller joined AFB in the organization’s early years, encouraged the development of teaching and communication tools that allowed blind and hard of hearing people to effectively engage in society, her work to help found the American Civil Liberties Union, her travels around the world to share her vision, is nothing short of astonishing, in her time and ours.

Imagine how she might view our time in current history! Today, with the first woman of color in the White House as Vice President, with women executives vying for top spots and dollars in industry, watching women stand up for their rights against Olympic committees, Governors, in schools and boardrooms around the world, how she might have reveled in our assertions! What might she have exclaimed as she watched hundreds of wheelchair users crawl the Capitol steps to urge passage of a civil rights law designed specifically to empower people with disabilities? Would she not have marveled at the concept of international treaties confirming the fundamental human rights of women and people with disabilities, even though America has yet to ratify them? I can practically feel the warmth and beauty of her smile here and now.

Even so, I believe that Helen would likely counsel us that there is so much that remains to be done in order to ensure our rightful places as women, disabled Americans, seekers of equity and justice. And, of course, she would be right about that.

Women’s rights remain fragile, and our progress towards equality must be carried on even as we begin to see results from the #MeToo campaign of recent years. Until equal stature and pay are the minimum standards, until childbearing and household responsibilities are undertaken by families as equal partners, until we see, yes, women in the highest office in government, industry, and culture, that work is not finished.

The same is true for progress towards inclusion for the disability community. We cannot take for granted the Americans with Disabilities Act, 31 years old but still fragile and unknown to many in this nation who continue to treat disabled people with kid gloves, or respond with fear or a desire to overprotect instead of fully engage and deal with us for our talents and capabilities, rather than the face of our disabilities. We remain hugely isolated in our own silo, and despite being the largest minority in the country, have yet to assert our power and reach our full potential in politics, government, and industry.

Given what Helen Keller accomplished, we have nothing to complain about, do we? Perhaps it is simply that her remarkable life, full of accomplishments at a time when the modern technology and conveniences we take for granted were not even dreamed of, tells us that in our own future, nothing should hold us back from working hard to realize our dreams. Our place in history gives us the advantage of learning from Helen’s example that tenacity is the key to enabling each person, regardless of gender or disability, to achieve greatness. Nothing and no one should stop us from full integration, inclusion, equity, and fulfillment. It surely did not stop Helen Keller, and it should not hold us back now.

Thank you, Helen. And thanks also to your teachers, mentors, supporters as we must thank each of our own. Why didn’t I think about you before, in those times in my life where I struggled to achieve some goal, large or small? How lovely to imagine that in that great somewhere of repose, you are urging us all to be the women and disabled achievers to live to our full potential, regardless of the times we find ourselves in! The thought makes me smile and celebrate these last hundred years of the disability rights movement all the more. If ever I reach a similar vantage point of repose and splendor, I hope it will be with the knowledge that we have done all we can to ensure that women, that people with disabilities, our children and extended families, our communities and nation, have made the progress towards equality that would make a magnificent woman like Helen Keller very proud indeed. Perhaps the true legacy of Helen Keller is that we are free today to assert ourselves and seek fulfillment as exactly who we are: Women, people with disabilities, mothers, daughters, proud citizens.

Thank you, Helen, so very much!