Haben Girma is a disability rights lawyer, author and public speaker.
I am Deaf-blind, and I almost missed my first lesson about Helen Keller. In second-grade U.S. history, my teacher scheduled Helen Keller’s story after a lesson in square-dancing. I remember my heart racing as I danced a do-si-do with my not-so-secret crush. So when our teacher told us about Keller, I was not-so-secretly distracted.
But throughout my schooling, snippets of Keller’s story would come back to me. I would turn to the nearest computer wondering: How did she . . . ? In high school, I finally read her books and marveled that she excelled in college before the Americans With Disabilities Act, before digital Braille and before, of course, the Internet. She pioneered through the world’s unknowns in a way that inspired me as I carved a path for myself. If my school hadn’t taught us about Keller, I might have do-si-do’d a different direction entirely. When I tell people about the path I did take — law studies at Harvard University and work as a disability rights advocate — they think back to their own lessons on Keller. Learning her story sparks something students carry with them into adulthood.
Last week, the Texas Board of Education took a step to remove Keller from the state’s social studies curriculum. The board preliminarily voted to update the K-12 curriculum by eliminating several historical figures, including Keller. Proponents said dropping the Keller lesson would save teachers 40 minutes. The board will make a final decision in November.
Spending 40 minutes annually to teach children about Keller is not just worthwhile but also imperative. The story serves as a gateway to conversations about disability and virtue. It introduces students to Braille, a tactile reading method that blind people have used since 1824. Children also learn about American Sign Language, a visual language developed by the Deaf community. Keller held her hand over another person’s to feel each letter as it was signed, then finger-spelled or voiced her response. She spent her life teaching people about the abilities of people with disabilities. She also advocated for women’s rights, racial equality and workers’ advancement. Keller wanted to make the world better for all of us.
Keller’s story provides an irreplaceable lifelong lesson of optimism, hard work and community inclusion. She labored over her studies, learning to read and write in multiple languages. She set high expectations for herself, gaining admission to Radcliffe College, the sister school to Harvard. Her teachers and friends converted books from print to Braille. She developed a community of friends and colleagues who welcomed her, finger-spelling and all. Successful people with disabilities such as Keller foster these inclusive communities. Disability itself is often not a barrier; the biggest barriers exist in the social, physical and digital environments.
The techniques a Deaf-blind person uses to navigate those barriers in a sighted-hearing world fascinate students. Whenever I do presentations at schools, students express boundless curiosity about Keller’s story. How could she climb a tree? How did she read if she couldn’t see?
If Texas removes Keller’s story from the curriculum, when will non-disabled children learn about disability? Her story is too often the only disability story. Deleting Keller from the curriculum can mean deleting disability from the curriculum.
Of course, relying on a single story to represent the disability community is in itself a problem. The disability community is diverse, full of rich stories of talented people improving their communities. Students need to learn more about disability, not less. It touches all of our lives. Our bodies change as we age. Anyone can develop a disability at any point or witness a family member or friend do so. More than 57 million Americans have a disability. We number 1.3 billion worldwide — the largest minority group.
Teaching students about disability through the stories of people such as Keller prepares them to be better citizens, better friends and better family members. Keller’s optimism, hard work and commitment to justice inspire them to the same virtues.
Texas will make a final decision in November. We have time to educate the state’s Board of Education on the importance of keeping Keller in the curriculum. Keller herself would urge people to stay optimistic: “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement; nothing can be done without hope.”
Keller’s words have sparked movements in the past. Why not now?