Now Is an Especially Terrible Time for Texas to Stop Teaching Kids About Helen Keller

Understanding the past experiences of the disability community can help heighten awareness of current events and create more informed and engaged citizens.

[Photo: Helen Keller holding a magnolia]
It is essential for schools to teach about Keller and other famous people with disabilities. Wikimedia Commons

Last week, the Texas State Board of Education raised eyebrows after preliminarily voting to “streamline” the social studies curriculum in public schools, including removing mentions of Hillary Clinton and Helen Keller from sections on citizenship. Although teachers will not be prohibited from discussing Clinton or Keller, they will not be required to do so.

The removal of Keller is particularly alarming for some members of the disability community who believe that not teaching students about the deaf-blind activist and author is reflective of a larger issue: the erasure of people with disabilities. Indeed, many people with disabilities took to social media to express their frustration.

For example, journalist and activist Victoria Brownworth tweeted: “There is more to this story than the misogynist erasure of @HillaryClinton. Other women being erased, like #HelenKeller represent whole communities that are already erased daily in America.”

One in four U.S. adults—61 million Americans—have a disability, according to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Yet, although people with disabilities comprise a substantial part of the United States, they are often overlooked by the general public—and when they are acknowledged, their disability is often either the only thing that’s mentioned or it isn’t mentioned at all. This is why it is essential schools teach about Keller and other famous people with disabilities, such as Harriet Tubman, who had epilepsy, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had polio, and Fannie Lou Hamer, who had polio.

Noting the attention the vote to remove Keller and others from the curriculum received, Lawrence Carter-Long, director of communications at the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, tweeted: “ON THE BRIGHT SIDE: #HelenKeller is now trending. Maybe people will be compelled to do a little research and discover *why* she was on the FBI’s watch list and what a pioneering pit bull lovin’ whisky drinkin’ Socialist bad ass she actually was.”

Indeed, although Keller is best known being deaf and blind, she was considered by conservative groups to be “radical” because of her involvement in political activism, especially the Socialist Party. Keller was concerned about social justice issues, and co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 1920. Notably, Keller’s views made her the target of FBI surveillance for most of her adult life, as noted by Carter-Long.

The United States has had a shameful history of treating people with disabilities. During the eugenics movement in the 20th century, for example, more than 65,000 people, many of whom had disabilities, were forcibly sterilized in government-sanctioned procedures. This practice, considered progressive at the time, was aimed at improving society by stopping those viewed as burdensome or unfit from reproducing. Shockingly, involuntary sterilization even gained the blessing of the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1927 decision, Buck v. Bell.

Throughout history, people with disabilities were also warehoused in state institutions, segregated from mainstream society. At their peaks, there were nearly 560,000 people with psychiatric disabilities and 195,000 people with intellectual disabilities living in state institutions. By the late 1950s, journalists began exposing the appalling conditions of these institutions, leading to a push by policymakers and advocates to move people with disabilities into the community, known as the deinstitutionalization movement.

Likewise, children with disabilities were regularly denied the opportunity to attend school until the 1970s, when parents and advocates brought a series of lawsuits demanding that disabled children be provided an education. These cases also led to the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975, the first federal law mandating that students with disabilities receive free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.

Shedding light on the history of people with disabilities, including the segregation they experienced, can help to ensure this inhumane treatment never occurs again. There is also a benefit for students with disabilities, who are rarely taught about people like themselves.

In addition to understanding the past regrettable events, students should learn about the rich history of the disability rights movement. Indeed, in a 1996 report, Achieving Independence: The Challenge for the 21st Century, the National Council on Disability (NCD), an independent federal agency that advises the president and Congress about disability policy, recommended that students learn about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the history of disability culture, and appropriate terminology, among other things.

Although people with disabilities have been fighting for their rights for centuries, disability rights grew in strength in the 1970s. For example, in 1977, more than 200 people with disabilities occupied federal buildings across the country to urge the Carter administration to pass regulations concerning Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the first federal law prohibiting disability-based discrimination. Known as the “504 sit-ins,” advocates occupied the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare building in San Francisco for 28 days, making it the longest such protest in the United States.

Twenty-three years later, in March 1990, disability activists again drew attention for their activism. This time, wanting Congress to pass the ADA, more than 60 people with disabilities abandoned their wheelchairs and other mobility equipment, and crawled up the 83 steps to the U.S. Capitol Building. The “Capitol crawl” was successful and led to the signing of the ADA on July 26, 1990.

The 504 sit-ins and Capitol crawl are only two of countless significant moments in disability history that must be taught in schools. For over a decade, disability advocates have been pushing for states to teach disability history and awareness in their public schools during the month of October, which is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. To date, more than a dozen states have passed laws or executive orders mandating disability history be taught to all students.

Learning about the history of people with disabilities, including how they were treated over time, can also decrease discrimination, as it has for other marginalized groups. In other words, if children are taught about people with disabilities early on as fully realized individuals, they will be more accepting and understanding as adults.

Despite many successes in disability rights, discrimination against people with disabilities, also known as ableism, remains a significant issue. For example, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, in 2017, only 19 percent of people with disabilities were employed, compared with 66 percent of people without disabilities. And women of color with disabilities experience even higher rates of unemployment.

The criminal justice system is also riddled with examples of people with disabilities, especially disabled people of color, continuing to be discriminated against. A recent study, for example, found that half of people killed by police have a disability. Moreover, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, three in ten people in state and federal prisons and nearly four in ten people in local jails have a disability.

The disparities people with disabilities experience is largely driven by ignorance and bias. Having students learn about the disability community can increase awareness, which in turn will lower discrimination.

Now, more than ever, it is crucial that schools teach about people with disabilities and their rich history. Understanding the past experiences of the disability community can help heighten awareness of current events and create more informed and engaged citizens.

Indeed, the rights of people are under incessant threats by the government. From continuous attacks on the Affordable Care Act, which would lead to cuts to important services for people with disabilities and the scrapping of protections for people with pre-existing conditions, to attempts by Congress to weaken the ADA, the disability community has been in a constant fight for their rights since Donald Trump took office.

The Texas State Board of Education will take a final vote in November to decide if Keller and others will be officially removed from the curriculum. By erasing people with disabilities from history lessons, we are failing our youth by denying them the opportunity to learn about significant aspects of our country’s past. Similarly, we are not providing them the knowledge necessary to be informed citizens.