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Inside the Helen Keller Digitization Project - "I Never Knew That!"

Helen Keller surrounded by school children. Australia 1948

We are delighted to present the first of the many blog posts that will appear over the next two years as part of the Helen Keller Digitization Project. We are kicking off with a post by Kim E. Nielsen, professor of Disability Studies at the University of Toledo, and Helen Keller expert. Enjoy!

Every year my spring is marked by phone calls, emails, letters and Skype conversations about Helen Keller initiated by nervous middle- and high-school students. These participants in National History Day, an annual program in which over half a million students conduct historical research on topics of interest to them, chose Helen Keller. Over and over again, hundreds of young people choose Helen Keller.

When I ask them why they chose Helen Keller the students, nearly always wary of the Historical Expert their teacher required them to contact, explode with excitement. "I never knew..." their enthusiasms always begin. They begin their projects assuming that Helen Keller would be vaguely interesting (or an easy topic), but once they start learning about her life and activism they can't stop. They seek models of disabled people different from either the eternally cheerful overcomers or pathetic victims they see too often in popular culture. They seek models of disabled people who resisted ableism and lived full lives. They seek models of activism, passion, and a commitment to justice. And in their searches they find that Helen Keller was far more complicated, far more interesting, and far more human than they ever anticipated.

What follows "I never knew..." varies from student to student, depending on their own passions. Some are attracted to Keller’s feminism, her love of dogs, her fierce internationalism, her religious faith, her disgust at economic inequalities, and even her appreciation of food and scotch. What does not vary, however, is the belief of young students that Helen Keller matters—to them as individuals, to those who identify as disabled and those who don’t, and to the world as a whole.

This year, what followed "I never knew..." nearly always included a reference to this summer’s 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Though Keller died long before the 1990 passage of the ADA, students realize that Helen Keller, along with so many others, helped to lay the groundwork for this pivotal and important civil rights legislation. The nervous middle- and high-school students I speak with know that their lives and their futures have been made better by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Helen Keller Archival Collection at the American Foundation for the Blind is a great place to start learning what one never knew.

Image: Helen Keller surrounded by school children in Melbourne, Australia, 1948

Web Accessibility
Helen Keller

Happy Birthday, Helen Keller! And Welcome to the Helen Keller Archival Collection Digitization Project

Cake covered in flowers and a quotation celebrating Helen Keller's birthday

Helen Keller was born on June 27th 1880 and we've made a cake to celebrate her birthday! It's inscribed with the Helen's words "Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much" This is very appropriate as we are also celebrating the beginning of our digitization project!

We are thrilled that as a result of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, AFB has begun the task of digitizing the over 80,000 items contained in the Helen Keller Archives.

Correspondence, press clippings, photographs, scrapbooks, audio recordings, artifacts, and film clips will be made fully accessible via the internet to both sighted and non-sighted audiences around the world.

This mammoth task will take place over the next 24 months. During that time we will bring you updates on our progress and will be featuring newly accessible items from the collection.

AFB is thrilled and honored to have six leading scholars in the fields of disability and gender history as advisors on the project. And what’s even more exciting is that they will be periodically blogging about the collection and their discoveries. These will begin on Tuesday with a blog post by historian Kim Nielsen.

Enormous thanks to each of them —

Kim E. Nielsen is professor of Disability Studies at the University of Toledo, where she also teaches courses in History and Women’s and Gender Studies. Beacon Press released her newest book, A Disability History of the United States, in 2012. Other books include Beyond the Miracle Worker: The Remarkable Life of Anne Sullivan Macy and Her Extraordinary Friendship with Helen Keller (Beacon, 2009) and The Radical Lives of Helen Keller (NYUP, 2004).

David Serlin is associate professor of Communication and Science Studies, University of California, San Diego.

Mara Mills is an Assistant Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University who works at the intersection of disability studies and media studies. She is currently writing a book, Print Disability and New Reading Formats, that examines the reformatting of print over the course of the past century by blind and other print disabled readers, with a focus on the history of Talking Books and electronic reading machines.

Georgina Kleege is a writer and English professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Ms. Kleege wrote Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller. Kleege examined the life of Helen Keller through the sensibilities of a 21st Century viewer.

Katherine Ott is curator, Division of Medicine and Science, National Museum of American History.

Catherine Kudlick is the Director of the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability and Professor of History. She is a leading scholar on the topic of disability history. In 2011 she received a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies to explore smallpox, one of the biggest producers of disabling conditions before the practice of vaccination.

We are so excited to begin the process of making Helen Keller's letters, photographs, and artifacts accessible online. And you can help! Here's how:

Helen Keller

Attending and Presenting at the Helen Keller Achievement Awards in New York City

HKAA 2015 Charlie Cox receiving an award presented by Joe Strechay

I’ve made it back to West Virginia after all of the excitement and fun at the American Foundation for the Blind's Helen Keller Achievement Awards. I had the honor to attend last year, when Christine Ha won a Helen Keller Achievement Award; she’s a connection of mine and an inspiration, so that was a real blessing. This year took it to a whole different level, though, as I was able to assist our AFB Board Trustee, Cathy Burns, in presenting Charlie Cox with his Helen Keller Achievement Award. Actor Charlie Cox won the award for his work in accurately portraying the blind character Matt Murdock in the Netflix series Marvel's Daredevil. As I stated when introducing him, this opportunity meant the world to me. I am a believer in Charlie Cox and the work he put in to portray this character who is blind and a superhero. His portrayal was masterful, and it was exciting and moving to assist in presenting him with the Helen Keller Achievement Award on Thursday night at the J.W. Marriott Essex House. Congratulations to Charlie!

Seeing the whole gamut of winners meant a lot to me. Apple Inc. was another Helen Keller Achievement Award recipient for its commitment to accessibility in its products. Apple has set the standard for accessibility in mainstream technology. In fact, I used my Apple iPhone for notes when presenting Charlie Cox with his award, and at home, I use my AppleTV to access Netflix and so many other streaming entertainment and news options. My mother, who is also blind, keeps telling me that the iPhone with Voiceover has changed her life, and I would agree with that. Congratulations to Apple!

Vanda Pharmaceuticals won a Helen Keller Achievement Award for their work to address a condition called Non-24 Sleep Disorder, as this impacts the lives and employment of so many people who are blind or visually impaired. Because those who are blind can’t see sunlight to regulate their circadian rhythms, their sleep cycles can be disrupted. I can name tons of people who have battled with this disorder, so I’m especially glad that Vanda researched and created an effective treatment for this condition. Congratulations to Vanda!

Ward Marston was the final honoree at the 2015 Helen Keller Achievement Awards. Ward is a Grammy Award-winning musician and sound engineer who has worked to preserve our musical history. In addition, he has performed at all of the Helen Keller Achievement Awards, dating back to 1994. He regaled the audience with stories of the impact of AFB, Apple's Voiceover, and past Helen Keller Achievement Award winners, such as Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, and so many more. Congratulations to Ward!

Besides the fabulous winners, the networking at the event was top-notch. I enjoyed my time speaking with Comcast's Vice President of Accessibility, Tom Wlodkowski, about his company’s accessible X1 cable box and apps. I enjoyed meeting various employees from JPMorgan Chase & Co. and discussing their employment initiatives around disability. I met the engineers from Apple who brought Voiceover to my AppleTV. I had time to catch up with Charlie Cox about work and life. And best of all, my wife, Jennifer Strechay, got to experience it all with me.

The event was a success, and this is due to the sponsors, attendees, planning committees, and especially to the winners who pushed to make a difference for people who are blind or visually impaired at the highest levels. Thank you and congratulations again to Apple, Charlie Cox, Vanda Pharmaceuticals, and Ward Marsten!

Social Life and Recreation
Helen Keller
Readers Want to Know

Helen Keller Sees Flowers and Hears Music

Helen Keller seated on a bench with two unidentified boys and her dog Hans in her Forest Hills garden, Queens, circa 1920s

Helen Keller was interviewed in her home in Forest Hills, Queens by Hazel Gertrude Kinscella in 1930 for Better Homes and Gardens. The article, entitled "Helen Keller Sees Flowers and Hears Music" is excerpted here; it appeared in their May issue. Read on and enjoy!

"...You wish to know what home and garden mean to me,” she said, at once. "

"My garden is my greatest joy. I feel that I am in the seventh heaven when among my plants. I feel the little heads pop up to look at me — my poppies, pansies, and pinks. We had a fine time in our garden last night with the hose. We have just set out a little Siberian elm tree, and not knowing that it was going to rain in the night we watered it well. It took two of us to drag the hose around, and I got so dirty…

"There in my garden I have my ‘green circle’ where I walk for at least an hour every day or evening. It is very narrow, but it reaches to the stars! On one side of this narrow walk is a privet hedge — on the other, small evergreen trees to guide me in my walk.

We have as many things as we can. Our clematis is just planted. It is always a miracle to see young trees grow. I take unusual joy in the dogwood and the wisteria, of which there has been a profusion. And here is syringa earlier than usual," she concluded, indicating with her right hand an exquisite cluster of syringa and white peonies which stood in a quaint blue bowl on a low table in the hallway."

"Are all these flowers from your garden? " I asked, for the room was fragrant with the odor of the blossoms which were everywhere so tastefully arranged.

"Yes, indeed," was the reply, but you must not think we have a big garden because we seem to have so many flowers. We will show you what we have before you go. At its best it is not much, " she concluded modestly…

…At one end of the divan upon which we sat was a low table and on this was another bowl full of white peonies.

"I adore the peonies, " said Miss Keller. "Since my childhood I have adored them and have been glad each spring when the miracle of their bloom has been wrought again. "

Beside me, at the other end of the divan was a higher table and on it, a tall bouquet of violet and cream iris. On the library table near the fireplace was another bouquet, this one of fragrant red roses and white peonies.

I mentioned their fragrance.

"I really like no flowers without fragrance, as fragrance is their soul, to me, ‘said Miss Keller’. As color is to the eye, so is fragrance to me my way of recognizing them. Also I feel them, their form, shape, stem, even their pistils. "


Aside from the beauty which is immediately visible in the large parlor — or living room in the way of rare ivories and art pieces, delicate Japanese prints framed and hung, an exquisite Japanese screen before the fireplace… comfort and entertainment are provided for all. There is a sweet-toned piano at one end of the room, the music of which Miss Keller feels through its vibrations. The other end of the room is filled with book-shelves.

Hans — the beautiful big Dane was sent Miss Keller just a year ago in June by her German publisher in Stuttgart — was meanwhile interestedly watching every movement in the room and when his mistress rose and started to take me through the house before going out into the garden, he rose and followed closely behind her.

…Miss Keller really works very steadily, with her continual studying, lecturing and writing. But for her pastimes — "I play solitaire, sew and embroider, I walk, we play checkers, and I read most of all. But how I love my radio, I listen to it each night. Here is my little radio room, " and she ushered me in.

" [My radio] enables me to feel the beautiful music every night. I like the Goldman band concerts; the quaint old melodies some entertainers sing; comic opera, Gilbert and Sullivan; and Wagner. It is so tantalizing when one feels the announcers (sic.) voice. I can distinguish the various instruments, the human voices and the applause. This age of invention is so astonishing! What is my favorite music? One of my favorites is the Wagner "Fire Music. "

…With a skillful twist of the hand, Miss Keller turned the radio going, touched it lightly, adjusted it again, then with one hand barely touching the frame, and head slightly tipped, she ‘listened’ while instantly her free hand indicated the rhythmic pulsations she was feeling.

A thrill went through me as I recognized the music which the radio pianist was playing for the coincidence was so startling! In a moment Miss Keller turned her face slightly toward me. "It is the" Moonlight" Sonata, which Beethoven — the deaf pianist — played for the blind-girl. "

…Then we went downstairs to go out into the garden, Miss Keller leading the way…


Next to the house was a spot where the tulips and daffodils had just finished blooming – now the later flowers were coming into blossom, and all along the house, inside the front hedge and along the wall-hedge at the side of the lawn were representatives of almost every lovely flower that grows…Near the fence was a showy bunch of gaudily colored oriental poppies. When Miss Keller slipped her fingers under the cup of one of those flowers to show it to me, the petals, already ripe, fell off into her hand.

"A pool of crimson beauty in my hand, " she said, then tossed the petals aside.

"My impressions of color are emotional, symbolical. I am interested in the theory that there is a correspondence between all the colors in the visible world and the soul within."

…as I said good-bye and took my departure — after being given a fragrant little rose by Miss Keller to complete my bouquet – I carried with me a mental picture which will not fade, of a Home-Keeping Heart, of a joyous and valiant traveler on the Path of Happiness.

Image: Helen Keller with two unidentified children in the garden of her Forest Hills home, circa 1930s

Social Life and Recreation
Arts and Leisure
Helen Keller

10 Accessibility Resources in Honor of Global Accessibility Awareness Day (#GAAD)

visually impaired woman touching a tablet computer

In honor of Global Accessibility Awareness Day, please enjoy and share these resources, and add your own suggestions in the comments!

1. AccessWorld®—AFB's free online magazine is devoted to technology news for people who are blind or visually impaired. AccessWorld keeps people with vision loss and their families, teachers, rehabilitation counselors, product developers and manufacturers up to date about the technologies that can transform their lives: smart glasses, fitness tools, mobile apps, vision research, and more.

Each month's issue features objective reviews, informed commentary, and in-depth reporting on technology news and trends—sign up to receive an e-mailed alert every time a new issue of AccessWorld or breaking news article becomes available, or download the free AccessWorld app.

2. AFB's Accessible Product Database—This is a comprehensive listing of assistive technology products used by people who are blind or visually impaired. It is the place to go to search for a product or manufacturer, find out what products are out there, and decide which product is best for you, a family member, or one of your clients.

3. AFB Tech’s consulting services—AFB Tech offers accessibility and usability consulting for companies, organizations, and individuals. Let us show you how making your product accessible will make it better for all users and more profitable for you. When you use good design principles that incorporate accessibility and, more importantly, usability, your product will be more robust and useful to everyone.

4. AFB webinars on assistive and mainstream technology—Explore AFB's webinars and online courses on assistive technology, low vision tools, iPads, and more. We offer continuing education credits through the Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation and Education Professionals (ACVREP), Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification (CRCC) , and American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA).

5. The W3C website—The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is an international community where member organizations, a full-time staff, and the public work together to develop Web standards. W3C's mission is to lead the Web to its full potential. Check out its markup validator (not an accessibility validator, but an important first step), which checks the markup validity of Web documents in HTML, XHTML, SMIL, MathML, etc.

6. WebAIM: Web Accessibility in Mind—WebAIM's mission is to empower organizations to make their web content accessible to people with disabilities. Check out their color contrast checker, and WAVE web accessibility tool.

7. Conferences like the AFB Leadership Conference, CSUN, and ATIA. Stay up to date on the latest conferences related to accessible technology by signing up for a free My AFB account, and selecting "Events and conferences relating to blindness and low vision" as one of your interest categories. You'll get emails whenever a new event is added to the AFB community calendar.

8. The AFB Accessible Player—Developed by AFB, this fully accessible, embeddable video player with HTML5 controls is available as a free download for other web developers. Currently in beta, the player offers keyboard access to the main controls (play, stop, forward, backward, full screen), and is stylesheet-driven, so it can adapt to user's color and contrast preferences.

9. Described TV Listings—Several of the most popular television networks are making certain prime-time and children's programs accessible to viewers with vision loss by adding video description, as required by the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA). Use our Described TV Listings search tool to find out what video-described shows will be airing soon.

10. Websites of Leading Cell Phone Manufacturers, Service Providers, and Third-Party Software Developers—Important note! AFB created this page simply for the convenience of our users. We do not endorse any company listed on this page, and do not endorse the accessibility of any website listed.

You can learn more about AFB's commitment to improving accessibility for people who are blind or visually impaired. Please share these resources with others, and let us know how you are celebrating Global Accessibility Awareness Day.

Web Accessibility