Doubting Helen Keller: Where we go from here

Perkins' president and CEO is on a path towards disability inclusion.

Disability Inclusion Matters

This opinion piece first ran on The Boston Globe online.

After TikTok users spent the past year spreading viral conspiracies labeling Helen Keller as a fraud, the first film to star an actor who is deafblind is up for an Oscar. “Feeling Through,” nominated for Best Live-Action Short, follows the connection that forms between a teenager and a man who is deafblind during a chance meeting late at night in New York City.

The film, as well as the Oscar-nominated documentary “Crip Camp,” beautifully refutes ableist misperceptions that undermine the potential of individuals with disabilities. Those discriminatory beliefs emerged on TikTok last year, when scores of the app’s users ignited a trend denying the long list of achievements Helen Keller accumulated throughout her remarkable life. Their flawed logic concluded that Keller could not have authored books, spoken multiple languages, displayed good handwriting, or graduated from college because she did not have sight or hearing.

Such assumptions are dangerous because they perpetuate the false belief that people with disabilities are less capable of success than their peers, called “ableism.” Discrediting their accomplishments can insidiously lower others’ expectations for them — or worse, the expectations they have of themselves.

“Feeling Through” offers a timely and important counter-narrative, based on a real-life encounter its director had years ago. In the film, audiences meet “Artie,” a deafblind person leading an independent life. He is played by Robert Tarango, a man who is deafblind and was discovered for the role while working at his job in a kitchen. Artie navigates public transportation, goes on dates, and communicates with people in multiple ways — including by writing on a notepad. On the surface, he receives help on his way home from the film’s other lead character. However, by the end of the film, we understand that Artie provides just as much support, if not more, to the stranger who took the time to get to know him. Most important, Artie is played by an actor who can authentically identify with the perspectives and experiences shown on screen.

This representation is essential because it is an accurate depiction in an industry where people with disabilities are often portrayed through negative stereotypes. The film shows someone leading a successful life in the story — and makes us aware that these successes extend beyond the screen into real life. We see similar achievements every day in our work at Perkins School for the Blind, where we prepare students with the confidence and skills they need to succeed in the world. But, as “Feeling Through” and TikTokkers show through the starkest of contrasts, we also need the world to be ready to support their talents, skills, and contributions.

Disability representation portrayed in film this year needs to be more prevalent in our economy and workforce too. Decades after activists — including those featured in “Crip Camp” — launched a movement for disability rights, a lack of understanding extending beyond TikTok threatens to stall its progress. Businesses, governments, and schools are crucial to achieving inclusion for individuals with disabilities, particularly as our lives move further online.

Focusing on digital accessibility is the most important way for organizations in the 21st century to show they recognize and value people with disabilities. Unlike ramps or signage to make sure facilities are physically accessible, many of the digital tools we now rely on do not have features that support people with disabilities to use them. Advocates have long called attention to this issue, and it requires even greater urgency during the coronavirus pandemic. Company websites that are not compatible with screen-reading technology for someone with visual impairment, or virtual meetings without captioning, create barriers for participation within an organization’s employee or customer base. Blind students at colleges and universities across the country have reported similar issues accessing remote course materials.

Many organizations across industries have already started the work to solve these problems, improving inclusion within their ranks and within the communities they serve. Companies should follow their lead and engage with the disability community to prioritize accessibility and proactively build it into websites, mobile apps, and other digital products before their release. This also requires examining accessibility in hiring practices, recruitment tactics, operations, and workplaces to ensure that all employees are best positioned to succeed. Taking these steps will improve businesses’ bottom lines by reaching more customers, and help widen recruitment pools with talented and qualified candidates.

It will also do the essential task of changing perceptions by making inclusion and accessibility a standard in our society. The more the public interacts with and recognizes individuals with disabilities as the capable people they are, the harder it will be for a trend like that on TikTok to spread. Instead, those who doubted Helen Keller will someday enter a workforce, neighborhood, or online community where people with disabilities are supported to achieve and valued for their contributions rather than undermined. The 2021 Oscar nominees provide a snapshot of what that can look like. It’s up to the rest of us to keep that progress going.

First-graders at Pinecrest Elementary School learned about Helen Keller from volunteer teacher Barbara Soper (center).

Why first-graders love Helen Keller

A historic photo of Helen Keller

Seven fascinating facts you probably didn’t know about Helen Keller

A young Helen Keller reading a braille book

Helen Keller timeline