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What the TikTok Helen Keller 'Trend' Shows Us About Disability and Success

I have heard there is a trend on TikTok to question the accomplishments of Helen Keller due to the nature of her challenges. Keller became blind and deaf at the age of 19 months due to a severe illness. With the support of her teacher and friend, Anne Sullivan, Keller learned to use sign language, read Braille, and speak, and became a renowned author and disability advocate. Her story has been featured in numerous films, and her childhood home in Alabama is now a museum. Her life has been well-documented, yet her capabilities are still being doubted.

Unfortunately, this troubling trend doesn’t surprise me as a blind woman. Every person with a disability has been confronted by people wondering or assuming what we can and can’t do. Myths, comparisons, barriers and motivations abound. Every life involves attributes and struggles we are born with as well as everything that happens, or doesn’t happen, afterward.

Helen Keller’s support system was different than it would be in today’s world. In deciding a person’s capabilities, there are numerous points to consider. No one will ever know how many of her achievements came from that support system, her family, and how much came from her powerful spirit. She had to have a strong spirit or her influence wouldn’t have had the impact it had.

I believe a person with a disability is only as successful as their support system. And a support system contains variables of nature and nurture. How innately intelligent might a person be, and are good educational opportunities offered? How much money and/or time is devoted to learning alternative techniques and general knowledge? How functional or overprotective are family or caregivers? What messages are internalized? When was the disability’s onset and how does that influence whether it is viewed as a “loss”?

My parents had college educations and we were not precisely poor. “Smart” was what they rewarded and my school district wanted good, polite blind children to send into public classes. (This was long before kids with disabilities had aides in the classroom.) I had no training in social and daily living skills or for travel until high school or beyond. That lopsided approach meant I worked too hard on academics without grounding in other areas. I also became moderately risk-averse.

I was curious, verbal and lucky to have had a resource teacher in elementary school who encouraged competition and good Braille skills. Sometimes I got a pass on things (high-level math courses in college) which unfairly skewed my grade point averages. But I’ve had real barriers (employment choices) that influenced certain decisions. And sometimes I’ve played the “blind card” to make things easier.

Disabled or not, success is a myriad of trade-offs with some good choices, bad choices and luck thrown in. I probably didn’t live up to many people’s expectations, but I’ve also met people with very minimal expectations of me. The extremes are what some people expect. “Super blind” or “helpless.” In reality, we are usually somewhere in between. Mountain-climbers and famous advocates are not the norm. How much quality help have they had? Are they less afraid of failure? Are they more insulated from it? Do they have more access to information and resources?

Even famous blind people doubtless had setbacks. But they were valued and cared about. They had a cheering section. They gained confidence and determination. This does not mean they were not courageous or smart. It means they had and used opportunities.

My writing career requires computer training I can’t get from vocational rehab. By the time I needed technology, I was married, widowed, and not gainfully employed. For years, I’ve had readers, housekeepers, computer wizards and good neighbors. If I would become famous, much of my ability would be due to these people. I could write the words, but not submit them. I could organize the errands list but not drive. I might have my brilliant insight because of being with someone else. I might have more time to think. I might have more stress.

My home life would not work without Terri. She’s worked for me for more than 30 years and she knows the quirks of a controlling blind woman who doesn’t like her space to change. She also drives more because I no longer have hearing or balance to travel independently.

I’m listening to a wonderful playlist on my new Echo device that Eva, the 16-year-old daughter of my computer wizard hooked up. Maybe Eva will help other blind people someday. She said, “You know, old blind people.”

My friend Laura, who is sighted, has lost over 100 pounds on her own. She eats rabbit food and walks now. I couldn’t talk her into walking several years ago. She has decided to lessen her disability trajectory. She reminds me that I too often reward myself with food.

My friend Anna began losing her sight after I met her. I like to think I was a slight inspiration. In her 70s, she had to give up her car. With the help of long-time neighbors and her daughter’s family, she mastered electronic magnifiers and kept baking bread and making coleslaw. Her house was always a haven for conversation and good coffee.

I think independence is figuring out what you are good at and doing it, and finding resources to manage the things you can’t or don’t want to do.

A young poet, able-bodied I think, said, “helplessness is so eager.” In today’s world, there are many distractions that might not be good for us. Real achievements are still the only way to try our skills or hone new ones.

Showing up at the gym or support group, putting toothpaste on your tongue and then on the brush, pouring liquids over the sink, reading your poetry in public, and influencing thousands of people are all forms of achievement. Capability is individual, multi-faceted and fascinating. Who decides which of these accomplishments make a person “successful”?

We all have talents and fears and experiences. Independence is always interdependent. There can be misconceptions about disability. And we can have misperceptions about our own disabilities.

I think every person needs certain things: security (however we each define it), divinity (a spiritual or inner compass or lines that are uncrossable), purpose, and respect from some people. Success is easier if we are not always in survival mode. So were Helen Keller’s accomplishments real? Yes, of course. But we can’t forget about the support system that helped her along the way, and do our part to ensure other people with disabilities get the resources they need to achieve their full potential.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.