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The Disasters of War: Helen Keller's Work On Behalf of Blinded Veterans

Helen Keller was a witness to the disasters of war—more specifically, soldiers blinded in the First World War, the Second World War and the Korean War. In-depth information on Keller's involvement with blinded veterans, and her work to improve the economic, social and psychological lives of returning veterans are all documented in the Helen Keller Archive.

Taken during Helen Keller's tour of U. S. Military Hospitals. Keller and Polly Thomson are photographed in a military hospital ward, possibly in Pennsylvania? They stand on the far side of a bed where a veteran is sitting up. He has a bandage around his head and is bending his knees. The soldier is seen across the foreground of the image at a diagonal. The head of the bed is on the left-hand side of the image. A bedsheet covers him. The women are leaning towards him. Keller is nearest to his head and her right arm touches his back. The women wear very similar light-color jackets with a small pocket with a handkerchief sticking up. They both wear necklaces and hats. A metal-frame bed is visible in the background.

(Helen Keller, Polly Thomson and a veteran lying in bed, possibly at a hospital in Pennsylvania.)

Taken during Helen Keller's tour of U. S. Military Hospitals. Keller is seated in a ward at Vaughan General Hospital, Hines, Illinois. She is with ten veterans. Most of the men are standing behind two veterans in wheelchairs. Keller, who is seen in three-quarter profile (facing the left-hand side of the image), is holding the hand of the veteran in the wheelchair who is to her right and slightly in front of her. Also to her right and ahead of her is the second man in a wheelchair, an amputee. Many of the men wear military overalls.Three men are on crutches. One of the men on crutches has his left hand on Keller's shoulder. Keller is wearing a dark pinstripe jacket and skirt, a light-color top and a dark hat.

(Helen Keller with wounded veterans at Vaughan General Hospital, Hines, Illinois.)

On behalf of AFB, between 1942 and 1944, Keller supported Senator Robert Wagner's efforts to secure funding for the rehabilitation, special vocational training, placement, and supervision of blind persons, including those blinded in World War II. Her understanding of the psychological impact of blindness on newly disabled veterans is readily apparent in a letter she wrote in 1945 to be distributed to parents of newly blinded soldiers. In the letter she sensitively and skillfully acknowledged the enormous blow that had befallen these men, but warned against pity. In this letter, she speaks about the soldiers’ new rehabilitation skills, and encourages each parent to respond with joy when their son returns home.

Taken during Helen Keller's tour of U. S. Military Hospitals. Keller and Polly Thomson stand in a ward at U. S. Naval General Hospital, Bainbridge, Maryland. Keller and Thomson stand in the aisle of a ward. Behind them is a row of metal-frame beds lined up against a wall with three windows and pull-down blinds. Servicemen and a servicewoman are sitting and leaning against the beds, A patient is in one of the beds. All of them are looking from behind at Keller and Thomson. The backs of four sailors fills the foreground of the image as they watch Keller and Thomson. A guitar can be seen lying flat on the left-hand side of the photograph. Keller's left hand is on Thomson's right shoulder.

(Helen Keller and Polly Thomson surrounded by military personnel on a ward at U. S. Naval General Hospital, Bainbridge, Maryland.)

Taken during Helen Keller's tour of U. S. Military Hospitals. Keller and Polly Thomson are in a ward at Lovell General Hospital, Ayer, Massachusetts. A veteran is pictured lying in a metal-frame bed. The bed cuts across the foreground of the image at a diagonal, with the head of the bed on the left-hand side of the image. The soldier is wearing pyjamas, a bedsheet covers his waist and left leg. His right leg is visible from just above the knee to his calf. It is suspended in a sling from a contraption above him. Thomson and Keller who stand on the far side of the bed are bending over towards him. Keller is nearest to his head, her right hand is on his pillow. Keller is possibly holding the veteran's right hand in her left hand and Thomson hold's Keller's left wrist. The women wear hats and dark pinstripe jackets

(Helen Keller, Polly Thomson and a veteran at Lovell General Hospital, Ayer, Massachusetts.)

Keller visited hospitals during all three wars. Her first-hand experiences are documented in travel schedules (between November 1944 and May 1946 she and her traveling companion Polly Thomson visited over 70 Army hospitals around the United States), letters demanding amendments to the social security act and rehabilitation services, letters to her from grateful Army Hospital personnel as well as images and film footage.

On this Veterans Day, we salute our men and women of the armed forces. Following in Keller’s footsteps, the American Foundation for the Blind remains committed to assisting our nation’s veterans coping with vision loss.


    Ready for Takeoff: Bill of Rights for Flight Passengers With Disabilities

    A bill of rights for airline passengers with disabilities and enhanced disability training for Transportation Security Administration officers are on the way under a new federal law.

    Among the improvements enacted in the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, this legislation will:

    • Increase civil penalties for bodily harm to a passenger with a disability and damage to wheelchairs or other mobility aids;
    • Require that DOT review, and if necessary, revise regulations ensuring passengers with disabilities receive dignified, timely and effective assistance at airports and on aircraft;
    • Create the Advisory Committee on the Air Travel Needs of Passengers with Disabilities to identify barriers to air travel for individuals with disabilities and recommend consumer protection improvements;
    • Require that the new Advisory Committee review airline practices for ticketing, preflight seat assignments and stowing of assistive devices, and make recommendations as needed; and
    • Mandate the DOT develop an Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights, in consultation with stakeholders, describing rights of passengers with disabilities and responsibilities of air carriers;

    The American Foundation for the Blind applauds this bipartisan legislation, as we know from many a blind traveler that negotiating airports and aircrafts can make for an unpredictable experience.

    To that end, another part of this new legislation directs the Department of Transportation to set a final rule for service animals on planes in the next 18 months, including a service animal definition and minimum standards. This particular aspect is one we will monitor closely. As we stated several months ago, when Delta Airlines announced their intention to implement “advance documentation requirements” for customers traveling with service animals, we would strongly oppose any policies that would create an undue burden and deny equal access of service for passengers traveling with a service animal.

    That said, this law represents a positive step forward and we will continue to support efforts to make travel by any means more accessible for people with disabilities., especially those who are blind or visually impaired.


    Department of Justice Confirms ADA Applies to Online Accommodations

    computer keyboard with one key depicting an icon of a person who is blind, walking with a long cane

    At the American Foundation for the Blind, we were heartened to read that the Department of Justice confirmed clearly and unequivocally, in a September 26 letter to congressional representatives, that the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to online accommodations.

    "The Department first articulated its interpretation that the ADA applies to public accommodations' websites over 20 years ago. This interpretation is consistent with the ADA's title III requirement that the goods, services, privileges, or activities provided by places of public accommodation be equally accessible to people with disabilities."—Stephen E. Boyd, Assistant Attorney General, in a September 26 letter to Congressman Ted Budd

    We recommend Lainey Feingold's update, Department of Justice Confirms ADA's Coverage of Websites, where you can also find an accessible version of the full letter from the DOJ. She notes that the DOJ's letter also reminds the congressman that "the Department has consistently taken the position that the absence of a specific regulation does not serve as a basis for noncompliance with a statute's requirements."

    We believe that web accessibility is a critical part of companies' obligation to provide equal access to their programs, services, and activities. We are glad to see the DOJ's confirmation of longstanding precedent that online retailers and other businesses are subject to title III of the ADA.

    Because digital inclusion is so central to our mission, AFB offers consulting services to businesses that need assistance in making their websites and other digital services fully accessible and user-friendly. We look forward to working with organizations that want to maintain welcoming online environments for customers with vision loss and other disabilities. AFB Consulting's project-specific work, training, and other services enable accessibility across companies' brands and products, ensuring they meet all standards of compliance.


    AFB Applauds Legislation to Strengthen the ADA & Help Small Businesses Become Accessible

    United States Capitol in Washington, DC.

    We applaud the introduction of legislation to strengthen the Americans with Disabilities Act and expand the tax credits already available to small businesses who want to become more accessible to customers with disabilities.

    The Disabled Access Credit Expansion Act—introduced by U.S. Senators Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Bob Casey (D-PA), Maggie Hassan (D-NH) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN)—would double the maximum tax credit currently offered via the Disabled Access Credit (DAC), which helps businesses pay for renovations. The proposed legislation would also expand the definition of small businesses who are eligible to receive this assistance, as well as investing in existing programs that mediate ADA-related disputes and help individuals and businesses understand the ADA's requirements.

    Given the recent upswing in litigation concerning companies hosting inaccessible websites, we believe the Disabled Access Credit Expansion Act to be a sensible and pragmatic route forward. Contrast this to the ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017. Also known as H.R. 620, this legislation would significantly impair the enforceability of the Americans with Disabilities Act by requiring an individual with a disability who encounters a barrier in any public accommodation, e.g. restaurants, movie theaters, etc., to give the business owner a technically precise written notice of the barrier followed by at least six months to resolve the issue before proceeding with court action.

    While the language of H.R. 620 is currently restricted to architectural barriers, many advocates fear that the legislation is poised to be expanded to include the ADA's applicability to the internet. Further, that the bill would unconscionably encourage operators to wait for a complaint before making facilities accessible rather than affirmatively ensuring accessibility as a matter of course.

    Which, of course, makes the Disabled Access Credit Expansion Act welcome news.


    Helen Keller's Life and Impact

    Helen Keller with early communications device

    On September 14, a national conversation began when the Texas School Board recommended the removal of Helen Keller from its required Grade 3 social studies curriculum. We realized this was an important moment to share Helen Keller’s extraordinary life story, and the many lessons she left us: perseverance, service, determination, compassion, inclusion, and the ability to change the world.

    Helen Keller (1880-1968) worked for the American Foundation for the Blind for 44 years, and today, we continue her legacy. Her story is captured in her own voice through the letters, photographs, and artifacts available in the fully accessible Helen Keller Archive. Currently, over 163,000 digital images are up on the website, and more are coming. It is clear, now more than ever, that we must complete this pioneering educational tool. But we need your help. Please donate today.

    At AFB, we know that Helen Keller’s story has the power to make the world a better place. She was a writer, a world traveler, an outspoken public citizen, and a passionate advocate for others. She fought to put her beliefs into action—to make sure that veterans who lost their sight in battle received rehabilitation services and that blind children gained access to a good education, and the life-changing knowledge of her beloved braille.

    The Helen Keller Archive includes correspondence, speeches, press clippings, scrapbooks, photographs, architectural drawings, and artifacts spanning over 80 years—with images and letters from key figures ranging from Alexander Graham Bell and Mark Twain to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. AFB’s archive is the world’s leading resource for historians, researchers, filmmakers, writers, publishers, and schoolchildren searching for information about and by Helen Keller and the times during which she lived.

    Helen Keller changed perceptions of what it means to be blind and deafblind. She fought for the rights of those with visual impairments, including greater employment opportunities. This archive represents a powerful vehicle to continue the work begun by Keller and AFB to build a more inclusive world. Please show your support for her work and legacy by contributing to the digitization project.