Michael Bird new mug

Michael Bird

The PBS series “American Masters” recently spotlighted one of the finest citizens Alabama – or the United States – has ever produced: Helen Adams Keller of Tuscumbia.

The program’s airing happened at a most appropriate time. 

Earlier this week, some of our students brought to our attention a TikTok video that claimed Helen Keller was not real. 

Not real?  As in, she didn’t exist?

How could this even be questioned?  We have pictures and film footage of her, there is evidence of her college graduation, and we even have the books she wrote telling the story of her life. 

And yet, some of these teenagers were saying that there was no way Helen Keller could be real, because nobody who was deaf and blind could fly a plane or write books.

I thought we were further along than this.  I can understand someone disputing things for which there is no concrete proof, but this woman’s house is a museum in our own state, for goodness’ sake.

Where in the world did this attitude come from, this view that a disabled person couldn’t accomplish seemingly impossible tasks on her own?  And how could disinformation be spread to the point that somebody on the internet could claim that a person is not real?

“Becoming Helen Keller” examines how Ms. Keller used her celebrity to champion the cause of DeafBlind people around the world, and how she landed on a list of Most Dangerous Americans for her socialist views later in life. 

Helen Keller was born in 1880 in Tuscumbia.  She was not disabled at birth.  Rather, at the age of 19 months, she suddenly became blind and deaf. 

Her mother was a very educated woman for her era; her father, a retired Confederate Army captain, was the editor of the local newspaper.  They struggled with Helen’s disabilities at first, then contacted the Perkins Institute for the Blind and asked for help. 

The Perkins school sent Anne Sullivan, one of their graduates who had recently joined the faculty.  An eye illness had caused Sullivan to lose much of her vision, but that did not stop her from wanting to help others.  Sullivan went to Tuscumbia and became Keller’s lifelong companion.

Anne Sullivan had come from nearly nothing.  Her mother died when Anne was only eight years old; her father abandoned the family and Anne went to live in a poorhouse in Massachusetts where there was such widespread physical and sexual abuse the state eventually took over the facility. 

When Sullivan took on the Keller assignment, she first had to break through with Helen.  By all accounts, Helen battled Anne ferociously at the start, but trust developed between them as Sullivan began teaching her vocabulary based on her own interests as she spelled words out into Keller's palm.  Within six months, Keller had learned 575 words, her multiplication tables, and the Braille system.

In a powerful moment immortalized in the Broadway play and film “The Miracle Worker,” Anne takes Helen out to a water pump, and spells out ‘water’ in Helen’s hand.  Helen begins to speak the word ‘wa.. wa..’ until she says ‘water’.

Helen Keller was accepted to Radcliffe (then, the girls’ side of Harvard) and became the first deaf-blind person to graduate from college.  She became a writer, telling her amazing story in issues of Ladies Home Journal before compiling all of her articles into an autobiography. 

She traveled the world in support of various civil rights causes, at great personal cost to her because she was often labeled as a radical (or, in modern parlance, “woke”).  She came out for a woman’s right to vote, advocated for universal health care, supported the NAACP, and joined the American Socialist party.  She acted in a movie loosely based on her life. And yes, she did get to fly a plane – as a co-pilot.

Helen Keller was real, and she could communicate.  The breakthrough “water” moment is immortalized in bronze at the U.S. Capitol, Alabama’s contribution to the statuary.  For the TikTokers out there who have bought into the lie that Helen Keller couldn’t possibly have done anything, a quick review of her legacy would prove them to be very wrong.

“Becoming Helen Keller” is airing on Alabama Public Television, and can be streamed on demand at the PBS website.