Young people on TikTok are denying the life of Helen Keller.
Keller — an author and activist born in Tuscumbia, Ala. in 1880 who lost her sight and hearing as a result of an illness at 19 months but was taught to communicate by her teacher Anne Sullivan — lived an incredible life, well-documented, for starters, through her autobiography and versions of The Miracle Worker both onstage and onscreen. But since last May, videos doubting Keller’s achievements have been making their way across the on the platform.
According to one video posted by a user named Leanne Silvey, the conversation was initiated by people who began creating content questioning Keller’s life for a laugh. To her, however, the theories being presented weren’t funny.
“I’ve seen a lot of jokes on this app about Helen Keller being fake. My friends and I have been saying this for years,” Silvey said in the video. “I’m genuinely not trying to be rude or offensive or anything, but at this point how can you believe that she wasn’t faking it?”
Silvey’s not alone in her convictions. “Helen Keller is NOT real. There is absolutely NO way she was blind and deaf and wrote TWELVE books, learned FIVE whole languages, fell out of a building and DIDNT die, went to Harvard, and had very very neat handwriting,” another user wrote in a video. “She DOESN’T exist.”
A TikTok spokesperson tells Yahoo Life, “TikTok is an inclusive community, and we do not tolerate hateful behavior. Content that dehumanizes others on the basis of a disability is a violation of our community guidelines, and we remove such content from our platform,” noting that content that mocks Keller is not allowed.
However, videos promoting the debunked theory are still being posted, with the latest to gain traction — with more than 600,000 likes — shared in December by a user named Keith. “I’ve had enough. I’ve heard it my whole life. She’s deaf, she’s blind, she’s amazing. No, guess what. She lied. She’s a liar. Her and that monster Anne Sullivan pulled the wool over our eyes and nobody’s thought to question it,” he said.
“Perfect handwriting wasn’t enough cause we ate that up,” he continued. “So they decided she was gonna be a profound author. Twelve books, that’s not even a realistic number for somebody who has all of their senses. One would’ve been amazing, I would believe it if it was just one book. And they had to even go further than that. Writing was not enough for them, they didn’t get enough thrill off that, so she apparently flew planes? In the sky?”
Keith’s profile makes note that his content is “purely satire.” However, the comment section reveals plenty of believers in his theory, leading one woman to examine how young people might be perfectly primed for these suspicions.
Generation Z’s inclination to challenge the truth
According to an article on Medium — “The Generation that Doesn’t Believe Helen Keller Existed,” by Isabella Lahoue, a Gen Z-er herself — young people are likely displaying a reluctance to accept historic information as reliable fact. She presumes that this is a result of the world they’re growing up in.
“Maybe we don’t believe in her because we’re growing up in a world of fake news. We know the power of manipulation and lies in the media, and we’re losing faith in the sources everyone once trusted. There’s too much data and too many lies circulating for us to process and believe it all,” Lahoue writes. “Boomers and Generation X love to chirp on the younger ones, quoting the adage, ‘don’t believe everything you read online,’ but we’re the ones who have the most trust issues when it comes to news.”
Research from McKinsey & Company, a management consultant firm, refers to Generation Z as the “True Gen,” constantly searching for the truth or multiple truths within an overload of available information.
“For Generation Z, as we have seen, the main spur to consumption is the search for truth, in both a personal and a communal form,” the article on its website reads. “This generation feels comfortable not having only one way to be itself. Its search for authenticity generates greater freedom of expression and greater openness to understanding different kinds of people.”
Lahoue suggests that the life of Keller isn’t one of the things that Generation Z feels that they have a responsibility to pay attention to or “believe.”
“We have to hear about the injustices committed at the border, against the black community, and against women, all of which are covered in lies that sugarcoat the situation, and you wonder why we have trust issues when it comes to the government,” she wrote. “We don’t have to believe in Helen Keller, and it shouldn’t be surprising if we don’t. The world we were born into makes us profoundly different than other generations, and hopefully, it will also make us into change agents.”
Now, older generations, advocates and people within the disability community are reassuring Gen Z that “Helen Keller is not Santa Claus,” as Andi Zeisler wrote on Twitter. “You do not get to decide whether to “believe in” a person who existed in the world. What is happening.”
Advocates say ableism is at the argument’s core
While much of the conversation around Keller conspiracy theories has existed in specific spaces where Gen Z-ers were seemingly speaking amongst themselves, an anecdote from one Twitter user, who retold how his Gen Z relatives called Keller a “fraud,” shows that the theory is taking off.
Guys, something insane happened to me today.
I am on a text chain with my teenage nieces and nephews along with my mom (their grandma) and today my mom asked them if they knew who Helen Keller was...
And their response was that Helen Keller was a fraud who didn't exist.
— Daniel Kunka (@unikunka) January 5, 2021
At first I thought they were trolling grandma, which is admittedly fun. But after awhile it was clear they weren't joking.
"How could someone be deaf and blind and learn how to write books?" My nephew admits she probably existed but was probably only one or the other.
— Daniel Kunka (@unikunka) January 5, 2021
Now, disability advocates and people within the deafblind community are speaking out about the collective doubt spreading across Generation Z and addressing the ableism — “the discrimination of and social prejudice against people with disabilities based on the belief that typical abilities are superior,” according to Access Living — making it possible.
“I have spent my entire career learning more about Helen Keller in order to teach the children in the deafblind program,” Martha Majors, education director of the Deafblind Program at Perkins School for the Blind tells Yahoo Life. “And if it's not true, then I've wasted 45 years of experience. So I might as well just retire.”
She and her colleagues at the Watertown, Mass., institution that Helen Keller herself attended were in disbelief when they first started coming across the conspiracy theories and misinformation under the hashtag #helenkeller on social media.
“I was shocked,” Susanna Coit, archivist and research library assistant at Perkins, says, “because we have and we know so much about her, and her life was so well documented from the beginning, that it's just hard to believe that we're still doubting this.”
People engaging with the conversation on Twitter were quick to point out that the argument was one rooted in ableism.
It’s important to point out the role ableism plays in this: this is not remotely shocking to me as a disabled person because we constantly hear things like “disabled people can’t do X” or “disabled people are lying about their conditions.”
— Chelsea Kenna (@chelseakenna) January 6, 2021
“There's an assumption from these people that say, ‘Well, they have a disability, therefore, they're not going to learn.’ And that I struggle with because a lot of us, especially at Perkins, really believe that all of our children can learn,” Majors says. “They all might not be Helen, but I do know that the child will learn language. The child will be as independent as they can be in this society and be a contributing member.”
Majors goes on to say that the largest issue is perception, as able-bodied people often believe that a person with physical disabilities doesn’t have strong cognitive abilities as a result.
“Blind people are very, very, very, very, very smart, but the perception is, ‘Oh, they're blind so they don't think well,’” she explains, referring to her own experience with students at Perkins. “Some of our children have cognitive problems, but many, many, many have very high functioning brains that we need to say to people, 'They can think!'“
While Keller was just one example of the incredible lives that deafblind people can lead, Coit explains that Keller isn’t nearly the only deafblind person to accomplish such things. She wasn’t even the first.
“Helen was not the first person who was deafblind to learn language. Laura Bridgman came before her, so it's not like this was the first time this was happening,” Coit says, further explaining that Keller had resources to assist her during her education. “There's an article where Helen Keller writes about how she signs her name and it's using square hand where there are raised grooves on the paper that are made to sort of help keep place on the paper. So there were these tools even then that are modified and still being used in one way or another, in many cases now. She also used typewriters throughout her life.”
The archivist additionally points out that when it comes to information about Keller in particular, the people who doubt their sources or the information handed to them are likely looking in the wrong places.
“I think it is hard because content online can be so easily manipulated and misused. And we have situations where we'll find something online and we're lucky enough that we have the time to verify it and to find the original source,” she explains of Perkins’ archives. “We have 14 Helen Keller collections with thousands of items, some Helen Keller writing, photographs, articles. Just all of that together, I feel, gives such a complete picture and maybe when not piecemeal, it’s not as easy to say that it’s fake because this is in context. It’s there.”
Majors adds that while Keller’s story alone is a great way to learn about the disability community, it’s important to look at the lives of so many other deafblind people to understand what they’re capable of. “Learn from people who live now and have that experience,” she says.
While not all deafblind people have the notoriety that Keller did, 32-year-old Haben Girma certainly does. As the first deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School and become a human rights lawyer, Girma has gained recognition from Forbes, Time and a host of political leaders including former President Barack Obama, who named her a White House Champion of Change. Still, even her accomplishments have been doubted.
“Many people are surprised I published a book, and some outright refuse to believe it. Like Keller, I’ve been told my accomplishments can’t be real. It’s only when people take the time to understand braille, accessible technology, and the constant ableism in our society do they finally begin to understand,” Girma tells Yahoo Life via email. “Ableism is widespread throughout all aspects of society. The fact that most schools fail to teach students about disability history is a symptom of ableism.”
She too acknowledges that learning about Keller alone is not enough. “Relying on a single story to represent the disability community is in itself a problem,” Girma says. “The disability community is diverse, full of rich stories of talented people improving their communities. Students need to learn more about disability, not less.”
The detriment of learning solely about Keller in school is only further proven as her life is now being put into question. Girma explains that this poses a risk of people denying the life experiences of deafblind people altogether.
“Nearly every disabled person has been told, at one time or another, ‘You’re faking it,’” Girma says. “Witnessing this happen to Helen Keller by millions of people is horrifying. How many of those people will treat living disabled people that way?”
As an advocate and a lawyer working to advance disability justice, Girma understands that she is not limited by her disability, but instead by the society in which she’s living with it.
“I encountered many barriers in the digital world. Not because of my disability, but because of attitudes among tech developers that trivialize access for people with disabilities,” she says, noting that the beliefs of others haven’t stopped her. “My handwriting is mostly legible when I sign books, though nowhere as neat as Keller’s. I’ve never been in the cockpit of a plane, but I’d love to have that experience!”
As for cultivating a world with better knowledge and understanding of the disability community and the many accomplishments and great potential of those within it, Majors says people need to “pay attention.”
“They have one section of understanding and we have to broaden that section in a way that meets their needs in a different way,” she says of offering accessible resources.
Coit adds, “Look at the world around you. One in four people [are living with a disability]. They're not hidden.”
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