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Helen Keller: A Christmas Tale

Head and shoulders portrait of Helen Keller in 1887

In The Approach of Christmas Helen Keller vividly describes an early childhood memory of Christmas. It was December 1887, a momentous year for Helen Keller. In March of that year Anne Sullivan came to Tuscumbia, Alabama to teach Helen. Just a few weeks later, Anne successfully taught her young pupil to communicate using the manual sign language. Helen was just six years old.

Many years later, Helen described the joy of her "first" Christmas in December of that year, as well as her subsequent bewilderment and outrage as she discovered inequality in the world.

"Tell us about your happiest Christmas." Do you say? These words send my thoughts flying back to the time when the word Christmas was first spelled into my hand. I was just beginning to be conscious of myself, most experience was one splendid bud. After indescribable darkness, silence and vain longing the happiness of childhood had flashed upon me — love had breathed a new life into me, and on that birthday of the Giver of life to all men I was a living soul!

The Christmases before that day— six of them— were a blank. Not that I had no gifts, but I could not distinguish them from anything else in the house. I did not know what was mine, or what was other people’s. I had no wish for anything, except food and objects that were taken from my hands because I might break or spoil them. If the family hid any presents from me, I did not know or care. I was not a child, I was a wayward, elfish (sic.) little animal with no language but a cry. My dog was only something that got in the way. I did not even realize that I loved any one or cared for anything…

I was nearly seven years old when my teacher came to me, so my first Christmas came in my eighth year. In memory it stands out vividly— the jump out of bed, waking everybody with a "Merry Christmas!" spelled by my hand, a hurried toilet, impatient waiting for others, a flurry of preparation for the family party after breakfast, and my incessant questions about everything.

How full the air was of secrets and mysteries! How tantalizing were the odors of gifts hidden away from my prying fingers— oranges, candies, pretty new toys. I do not think any child ever plotted more surprises or gave away more secrets or received more delightful gifts than I did on that beautiful Christmas day in the land of mocking-birds and roses.

I even insisted on giving something to my dog, Belle. I tied on her neck a big Christmas bow that she did not appreciate. She was a setter, and very fond of hunting birds. In the afternoon she skipped off on a private excursion, and when she came back, lo! The bow was in a sorry plight, it had been dipped in the creek, and was full of burs and sadly bedraggled.

The red letter event of that first Christmas was a tree to which the school children of my home town invited me. When I found myself caught in the tangle of its fragrant embrace, I clapped my hands. I felt the presents hanging on every branch and twig. When I was told that each child would have a gift I was so delighted that the people in charge let me hand the parcels to the children.

There were many presents for me, and I was overjoyed with them. For the first time, I was feeling a child’s pleasure in owning things, in getting them.

But as I danced about, showing off my new possessions, I ran against a child in a corner— and as I touched her, I discovered that she had no present. She had been forgotten. I insisted on giving her my toys. Afterwards I was told that she received no present because she was poor.

I had thought that everybody would be happy and get something good at Christmas. The next few days I bombarded my teacher with questions. "Why is she poor?" I demanded. "Why has god given me so much and her nothing " There was hot resentment in my heart against a God who, I thought, was so cruel to her.

Of course I did not have words to express all these feelings. But the little girl that had no gifts brought a real shock to my idea of a happy Christmas for everybody. And I think now that my childish feeling discovered a real fault in that first and happiest of all my Christmases.

While there are gifts for some and disappointments for others no Christmas can be perfect. While there are children who must go hungry on Christmas day no true follower of Christ can enjoy his Christmas dinner. If we would work for the world’s happiest Christmas we must strive to order the society in which we live so that none will go through life empty handed, without gifts. For only when all men have a just share in the bountiful gifts of God and the fruits of their own labor will Christmas be a fit celebration for the messenger of brotherhood among men.

Helen Keller

Blind Boy Has White Cane Taken From Him, Replaced With A Pool Toy

Recently, you may have read a story or seen it on the news about the little boy whose white cane was taken away from him because of behavior reasons. I wanted to take a minute to discuss this situation and why this is so wrong. The purpose of the white cane is to be a tool to allow a person or child who is blind or visually impaired independence.

As a person who is blind or visually impaired who depends on the use of my white cane for travel and independence, I am truly upset by this. We teach youth and adults who are blind or visually impaired to keep their cane with them. We encourage them to use it. The white cane is a tool and a pool toy is not a substitute, nor would be a broom, stick, or tent post. This would be like someone taking away a wheelchair or crutches from someone who needed these tools.

First of all, the reaction of the schools mentioning that the school purchased the white cane shows the lack of awareness of the importance of a white cane. A pool noodle is not a tool that allows a person to explore or to keep themselves safe. The use of the white cane helps me detect objects, stairs, holes, and doorways. I would not be traveling safely without my white cane, unless I was using a trained dog guide and had received my own training with the dog guide, too.

The fact is most people who are blind have experienced a white cane breaking while out and about. This is a horrible feeling, and when I am traveling for work, I have an extra with me. I think back to being in the middle of a mile-long walk to work and my cane broke. I was shocked and like, "Uh, this is not good." I had to use a broken white cane to navigate home to get another cane. Luckily, I am a lot like the old television character MacGyver, and I used a strap to makeshift my cane together.

Secondly, the white cane is specifically designed for multiple purposes. How do I know this? I was trained as an orientation and mobility instructor and taught this skill. One of the purposes for the white cane is identification. Do you think a driver or someone in the public would recognize an individual is blind while they carry a pool noodle or even a broom? No, they would not, and it has taken a lot of education of the public to create awareness around the white cane.

I don't think we need to get into behavioral management, as the decision was initiated by the bus driver. Bus drivers are not typically taught behavioral management, but we could get into common sense. The substitution of a pool noodle seems to show a purpose of humiliating the child, but I could be wrong. The real issue is no one should be able to take away a blind person’s white cane. Flight attendants have tried to take my cane, and I was like, "I don't think so." To me, this is like saying, why I don't I just poke you in the eyes. Just saying!

I commend Dakota and the Nafzinger Family for standing up and bringing this to the light of day. I guarantee things like this have happened in other areas, but families aren't always comfortable with highlighting the issue. The fact that this happened in an education setting means we still have a lot of awareness and educating of the public and even schools.

I wanted to provide you with the thoughts of a friend of mine who actually worked with Dakota as his teacher of the visually impaired (TVI) a few years back.

"When I first heard what happened, I was sad for Dakota and angry. When I read more about it, I really questioned why or how that could happen. I'm really proud of his family for speaking up and making this story public. I've seen it shared by many facebook friends that have no connection to him. The number of national news sites that picked up the story astounds me, too, as the story really went viral. I first shared the story because I questioned how the education professionals did not seem to have some basic education of the purpose of the white cane and hoped that the story would spread awareness of the white cane. And it did. But then, after reading comments of people trying to blame the family for not purchasing their own since canes are so "cheap," I realized that this story is bringing awareness of basic civil rights and special education laws for students with disabilities. I hope this situation can also help other school districts around the country really think about the appropriate punishment when it comes to all students. Thanks to everyone who has shared the story and stepped up for Dakota--he deserves it!"
-Kitty Greeley-Bennett, Dakota's former COMS and PreK TVI, current NLCSD Doctoral Fellow at Florida State University.

A Note From AFB Press

We'd like to suggest some reading material for schools to help them understand the unique needs of children with visual impairments, including those with additional disabilities: the series of booklets, "When You Have a Visually Impaired Student in Your Classroom" from AFB Press.

Final Thoughts

The white cane is a tool that promotes independence among youth who are blind or visually impaired. Don't take away a child's independence! You can go back and read my stories from National White Cane Safety Day about the importance of the white cane. Let me know about your experiences.

Here is an update on the story on, too.

In the News
Personal Reflections
Orientation and Mobility
Getting Around

How do schools meet the needs of students with visual impairment who are English-language learners?

According to 2013 data from the American Community Survey (U.S. Census Bureau, 2014), an estimated 668,000 American children and youth ages 5 to 21 are blind or have trouble seeing. Of those, over 159,000 (almost 24%) speak a language other than English at home. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) guarantees that if these children have a visual impairment or other disability which impacts their access to education, then they are eligible for special education services, including individualized evaluation and educational supports and instruction. At the same time, both IDEA and Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act require special provisions for English-language learners. IDEA requires that testing and evaluation materials should be “administered in the child’s native language or mode of communication unless it is technically not feasible to do so” (IDEA, 2004, § 612).

The intersection of these two educational (and legal) issues – governing the rights of students who are English-language learners and the rights of children with disabilities – has not been fully addressed for children who are blind or visually impaired. Questions that have to be answered include:

  • How can we provide a full, individual evaluation for a student who is both visually impaired and an English-language learner? What do evaluators need to know? What must we do to avoid misidentification of students based on language fluency rather than disability?
  • How can we provide the best instruction – especially early literacy instruction – for students who are English-language learners with visual impairments? If a school is providing reading instruction in student’s native language, what can we do about braille instruction? What about audio materials?

To raise awareness of these issues, and especially to shed light on issues surrounding psychoeducational assessment, the AFB Public Policy Center arranged to interview Dr. Olaya Landa-Vialard, assistant professor at Illiniois State University and Coordinator of the Special Education in Low Vision and Blindness program. Dr. Landa-Vialard is also an Educational Diagnostician and a certified teacher of students with visual impairments. She has previously served as the Lead Bilingual Educational Diagnostician for the Program for Students with Visual Impairments for Houston Independent School District in Texas, and her dissertation research investigated the assessment practices and procedures used by educational diagnosticians when assessing students who are bilingual with visual impairments. We have published this interview in both English and Spanish on the AFB Public Policy Center’s webpages, along with other bilingual assessment resources developed by Dr. Landa-Vialard.

We hope this information will be informative for everyone interested in education for bilingual/English-language learners with visual impairments, as well for as those who are following and advocating for special education policies. The resources provided by Dr. Landa-Vialard will help teachers, parents, school psychologists, and educational diagnosticians to improve assessment practices and service delivery for this growing population of students. We welcome your feedback and comments on this blog post, or directly to Rebecca Sheffield (Senior Policy Researcher at AFB).

Additional reading suggestion from JVIB:

Topor, I., & Rosenblum, P. (2013). English-language learners: Experiences of teachers of students with visual impairments who work with this population. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 107(2), 79-91. Available at


Cultural Diversity
Public Policy

Helen Keller: A Consummate Fundraiser

Helen Keller at an institute for war blind in Rome, Italy, 1946

Sixty-seven years ago, on December 16th 1947, Helen Keller gave this speech to the New York Commission for the Blind. Its power resonates today...

Dear Friends,

It is an honor to salute you on International Day. The New York Commission for the Blind is glad to have you see that the sightless can do work worthy of their dignity as human beings – they can earn their daily bread and produce goods both excellent and useful. Through the work of their hands they are able to give assistance to other blind people who are in want.

Last winter I visited the blind of Europe, and it stabbed me to the soul to realize how the late War had robbed them of their schools and workshops, their Braille books, food and clothing. Most Europeans have been, and are being cared for by various organizations with medical supplies and other necessities of life, but the blind have been overlooked. The American Foundation for Overseas Blind is the only agency which tries to befriend them.

Will you not relieve their distress a little by purchasing the warm clothes here, contributing them to the struggling blind of Europe and making it easier to overcome their appalling difficulties and regain their self-reliance and an honorable status of service in the community? That will be but part of the noble work of betterment that you are rendering possible for suffering humanity.

While you are here, will you not please go up and see the exhibit from the technical research department of the AFB. It includes devices which help the blind to live more independently in the dark, not only to carry on in business, and in the home…

Image: Helen Keller visiting an institute for those blinded during World War II. Rome, Italy, 1946.

Related Links

Helen Keller

Fitbit and Up24: Are These Health-Tracking Devices Accessible to Exercisers Who Are Blind?

Fitbit on the wearer's wrist. Woman is holding an iphone with which to check the Fitbit app.

Tracking health and fitness is all the rage. Should you jump on the bandwagon? Can you? That is, are these tracking devices accessible to users who are blind?

I've tried two such devices: the Fitbit Flex™ (usually just called Fitbit) and the Up24™ from Jawbone.

Accessibility Bottom Line

The Fitbit is light-years ahead of the Up24 in terms of accessibility. If you are choosing between the two, and you are visually impaired, get the Fitbit, no doubt about it. The initial setup is much more accessible, and the daily use of the device is much more accessible.

What Do These Things Do?

In simple terms, they log and report the steps you take. Basically, you wear a wristband with a small device, and that device talks to your smart phone via Bluetooth (don't worry, it's just a wireless thing that lets the info from your Fitbit go to the phone). An app on your phone lets you see how many steps you've done so far today, go back to previous days, check the status of the battery on the device, and many other things. It also uploads the info to your online account, if you set one up, so you have access to even more.

With the Fitbit, my favorite feature is the way you can make a circle of friends. This is how I got involved in the first place—my friend wanted to get more exercise, and bought a device. She showed me how she had a circle of friends who could see each other's 7-day totals, and could send each other "cheers." (They could send each other "taunts," too, but who would do that?)

So, I bought a Fitbit and joined her circle. Then my friends joined. You can invite friends of friends, too.

Is this support or competition? Well... both. Some friends are highly competitive and work to be at the top of the 7-day list. Others are less intent on being at the top, and send cheers to friends at the top, or who climb suddenly. Either way, it's a great tool to form circles of people trying to get moving.

Marathon Training

Athletes who are blind or visually impaired are always looking for tools that will help them improve their performance. Sighted runners and cyclists have a lot of choices of advanced watches, heart rate monitors, and apps to help log and monitor workouts.

So, will the Fitbit do the trick?

Measuring your marathon training in steps is a little like a billionaire doing accounting in pennies. Yes, a 20-mile run is done one step at a time, and counting the steps isn't exactly invalid, but what runners really want to know includes minutes per mile, heart rate, split times over a distance, and such. The Fitbit app is accessible, but it isn't this. It is really suited to the person for whom walking to the corner to catch the bus would be an exercise improvement.

Is This a Good Gift Idea?

If your friend wants to get more exercise, and likes technology, and has a smart phone, I'd say yes. I'm loving mine, and I don't even mind (OK, I enjoy) the taunts from my friends when they pass me on our 7-day totals.

One Problem to Watch Out For

The clasp on the Fitbit Flex band clings precariously. The band is light and comfortable, and its disappearance is hard to detect. So, I've scattered quite a few of these gizmos around the city. Sometimes people bring them back to me, but mostly I've become a regular at Best Buy. I'm counting on this one to last until the Apple Watch comes out and I can decide if I should go that route.

Want a lot more detail about these and other devices? See the AccessWorld™ article Get in Shape with the Fitbit Flex from a few months ago and the AccessWorld™ article Mobile Connected Health Devices: The Future of Health Technology? from November's issue.

Assistive Technology
Helpful Products