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The Helen Keller You Didn't Learn About in School

Limited education on Keller's life has implications for how students perceive people with disabilities .

If students learn about any of Keller’s accomplishments as an adult, they learn that she became the first Deafblind graduate of Radcliffe College (now Harvard University) in 1904, and worked for American Foundation for the Blind from the mid-1920s until her death in 1968, advocating for schools for the blind and braille reading materials.

But they don’t learn that she co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union in 1920; that she was an early supporter of the NAACP, and an opponent of lynchings; that she was an early proponent of birth control.

Sascha Cohen, who teaches American Studies at Brandeis University, and wrote the 2015 TIME article “Helen Keller’s Forgotten Radicalism”, argues that Keller’s involvement in workers’ rights can help students understand the roots of the workers’ rights and inequality issues that persist today: “The Progressive Era when she was sort of working politically in different organizations was a period of rapid industrialization and so there were these new conditions in which workers were subjected to this sort of heightened inequality and even danger and risk physically. So she pointed out that a lot of times people went blind from accidents on the shop floor. She saw this real kind of imbalance in power between the workers…and the sort of what we would call the 1% or the very few owners and managers at the top who were exploiting the workers.”

Some of the reason schools don’t teach much about Keller’s adult life is because she was involved in groups that have been perceived as too radical throughout American history. She was a member of the Socialist Party, and corresponded with Eugene Debs, the party’s most prominent member and a five-time presidential candidate. She also read Marx, and her associations with all of these far-left groups landed her on the radar of the FBI, which monitored her for ties to the Communist Party.

However, to some Black disability rights activists, like Anita Cameron, Helen Keller is not radical at all, “just another, despite disabilities, privileged white person,” and yet another example of history telling the story of privileged white Americans. Critics of Helen Keller cite her writings that reflected the popularity of now-dated eugenics theories and her friendship with one of the movement’s supporters Alexander Graham Bell. The American Foundation for the Blind archivist Helen Selsdon says Keller “moved away from that position.”