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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.

The ADA's 28th Year in the Shadow of H.R. 620

Three disability symbols representing the Americans with Disabilities Act

HR620—A "Solution" in Search of a Problem

One of my favorite assistive technology podcasts recently made me grit my teeth, again, over the passage of congressional bill H.R. 620. H.R. 620 is titled the "ADA Education and Reform Bill."

In episode 107 of the AT Banter podcast, co-hosts Ryan Fleury and Steve Barclay discussed H.R. 620, stating that it would seem reasonable for an individual to approach a business that most likely, inadvertently created a barrier to access and ask/suggest/cajole them into making the necessary changes. Both felt that giving business owners 60 days’ notice to respond, as H.R. 620 requires, and providing them some time for compliance was the "right" thing to do, rather than go after them first with a lawyer.

I agree. Businesses should be consulted first and offered reasonable time for compliance, and the ADA provided that when it became law in 1990—28 years ago!

The language of H.R. 620 seeks to remove much of the legal strength of the Americans with Disabilities Act by adding additional hurdles to the individuals seeking legal relief from barriers to public access. Its supporters point to what they claim is an increase in the number of "drive-by" lawsuits aimed at businesses not in compliance with the ADA. These lawsuits, they claim, are particularly burdensome to small businesses. Let's take a closer look.

Scope of H.R. 620 and the ADA Goes Far Beyond Vision Loss

The scope of H.R. 620 and the ADA covers a full range of disabilities, including such things as access to public areas. The ADA ensures, for example, that a public entrance is designed to facilitate access to all members of the community or that a website is usable by a computer user accessing it with a screen reader. After all, it is not the wheelchair that creates a barrier to accessing a building, but the stairs or an entryway that is too narrow or poorly designed for passage in a chair.

Likewise, the web is not by its nature an inaccessible platform. It was developed in 1989 as a text-based Internet protocol, which was not designed to be screen-reader-friendly at the time due to limits in technology. Over the years, however, we've added many layers and features to the web that have sometimes made it inaccessible to visually impaired users. In fact, most of these inaccessible features were added after the passage of the ADA in 1990! Luckily, we have also developed simple, widely adopted web accessibility standards that ensure all people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the web, and also contribute to it. The House-passed bill doesn't touch website accessibility or any other technology accessibility standards, but some proponents have urged that the Senate take up H.R. 620 and expand it to weaken these important protections for people with disabilities.

ADA 28 Years Old

As of July 26, 2018, the ADA will have been on the books for over 10,200 days—28 years. The ADA is certainly not the only piece of legislation governing accessibility. In 1998, Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to require that federal agencies make their electronic and information technology accessible, and 48 years ago, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibited the discrimination of people with disabilities in any program receiving federal funding.

Again, none of these essential pieces of the fabric of disability civil rights are in the crosshairs of Congress, but House passage of H.R. 620 means that, apparently, we've got to continue to make the case for protecting all of these-hard-won rights.

I agreed with Fleury and Barclay that businesses, especially "Mom and Pop shops" that are so often trying to get by on a shoestring budget, deserve the courtesy of a conversation. They also certainly deserve time for compliance. But how long does it take to incorporate accessibility features, and comply with well-established standards?

Is 10,000 days enough time to incorporate accessibility into your public space? Isn’t 48 years a sufficient heads-up that discrimination based on disability is prohibited?

Is it possible that lack of compliance to these laws is one of the key contributors to the employment rate among job seekers with vision loss, which stubbornly hovers near 35 percent in an economy where the employment rate for the general population is closer to 70 percent? How many job seekers need to remain unemployed, for how much longer, so that businesses have ample opportunity to comply with laws, some of which were enacted nearly a half century ago?

Don't Eviscerate the ADA

I agree with Fleury and Barclay; the right thing is to make suggestions, educate, and offer time for compliance. That was done years ago. Creating additional hurdles for individuals seeking the access to public places they were granted by law decades ago and providing businesses additional time to comply with this law is nothing short of eviscerating the ADA.

Keep a wary eye on H.R. 620 and remind your state's senators how important the ADA is to our community without the unnecessary proposals outlined in H.R. 620!

Thoughts on Independence Day by Helen Keller

Happy Fourth of July!

Helen Keller fought her entire life for social and economic equality for all. During the 1930s she used the platform of the popular Home Magazine to express her ideas and encourage self-reliance, education, and hope, particularly among women. On the occasion of the Fourth of July, 1934, she encouraged readers to reflect on democracy and the work of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt who sought to lift the country out of its economic woes.

"Independence Day" by Helen Keller Home Magazine, July 1934

scan of Helen Keller's article in Home Magazine, July 1934

Image and text courtesy of the Helen Keller Archives, American Foundation of the Blind


When the midsummer months come round, people think seriously about taking a vacation. Every one desires a respite from the pressure of business duties and social obligations. They want to let up, to enjoy, unhampered by nagging care and appointments, the restorative pleasures of the great out-doors and the diversions to which their taste inclines them.

Independence Day is the excuse for all who can to plan some kind of celebration. I imagine they think more about the excursion than about the ideals of the founders of their country, and perhaps that is as it should be.

I, however, cannot think of the Fourth of July without remembering one American who will not have a holiday this Summer – that is, President Roosevelt. I feel we should all have him in our thoughts, whatever our diversions may be. For we have laid upon him a momentous duty in the fulfillment of which he is exerting every power in him.

On that day President Roosevelt will be engaged upon the task of making the ideals of the founders of America triumph. He must of course rely upon the loyalty of the people who put him at the head of the nation to carry through successfully the extensive and important trust they have placed in his hands.

To lead a country in revolution wisely and effectively, without ambition and without bloodshed, demands lofty genius and unbending purpose; and there can be no doubt that a revolution of vast consequences is taking place in America at the present time.

President Roosevelt is building a new state amid the angry opposition of some and the lukewarm support of others. Without a charge, but with unwavering eyes and steady will he is guiding us through confusion and change. He is setting up a humane order in the midst of ruthless, self-seeking, reckless greed and economic anxiety. He is using all the powers at his command to compel the selfish few to play the game of business fairly. Never again, he says, shall we permit unsocial conditions in the United States which have heretofore allowed the maldistribution of wealth and power by a small minority.

After a year of anxious toil and earnest, but sometimes bitter discussion, in which more than once it seemed as if his projects were on the point of breaking up, he has inaugurated a colossal work of reconstruction which will affect the whole future of the nation. Whatever may be the ultimate outcome of his labors, one thing is certain, our eyes have been opened to the made decade of 1919-1929 which brought about the present depression; and lives there one American who does not consider this one of the greatest blessings that ever came to our people?

In spite of the high-wrought intensity of feeling that has from time to time been displayed, the President has kept his equanimity, and large outlook. His dauntless spirit has won for him the admiration of the world. Many wonder whether he can overcome the fearful odds that confront him, but nobody doubts his sincerity and altruism.

John Fiske tells us in his account of the struggle for American independence which dragged through four months of a scorching Philadelphia summer that the scene was ended by a characteristic bit of pleasantry by Franklin. On the back of the President's quant black arm-chair there was a half sun, brilliant with its gilded rays. As the meeting was about to break, and Washington arose, Franklin pointed to the chair and said:

"I have been sitting here all these weeks, wondering whether yonder sun was rising or setting, but now I know it is a rising sun."

If the people will stand firmly by President Roosevelt, the Sun of Democracy will rise anew, and "this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and the Government of the People, by the People, and for the People shall not perish from the earth."

Related Links

Helen Keller

Animal Tales: Letters from Nella Braddy Henney to Helen Keller

Helen Keller with sheep in Scotland.

Helen Keller with sheep in Scotland, 1932

Among her many roles, Nella Braddy Henney was a friend, agent, and editor to Helen Keller. Nella and her husband, Keith, spent their summers on Foss Mountain in Snowville, New Hampshire. With her teacher, Anne Sullivan and secretary and companion, Polly Thomson, the trio spent time at Nella’s summer home and would go on daily walks with Nella. Before leaving after a visit in 1938, Helen wrote to Nella that “your nest of peace is twice blest.” She continues, "How inundated we have been with every kind of beauty every minute on Foss Mountain."

Nella wrote to Helen and Polly (Thomson) almost daily. She wrote about her activities, plans, business matters, and the wildlife that surrounded her. In addition to reporting the weather and what was growing in the garden, Nella’s correspondence showed a fascination with the animals that lived around (and sometimes in) her house.

I first encountered these tales while I was digitizing correspondence as an intern in the archives at the Perkins School for the Blind. A letter about business obligations and dealings could finish with the latest drama in a raccoon family who spent a summer under Nella’s porch. The stories are continued, with new episodes, in sequential letters and sometimes throughout the entire season.

I was happy to find more animal reports in the letters in the Helen Keller Archive. Using the search feature, I was able to search for "animals" and then filter it by category "letter" and "person from" "Nella Braddy Henney." One of my favorites describes a chipmunk who Nella supposes is a "mathematical genius." In a letter dated September 9, 1963, she writes about a chipmunk who seems to be able to count the number of peanuts that Keith gave him. Nella explains that the chipmunk would "patiently wait" until they gave him another when they only gave him two. She writes that, “..he must have a hoard big enough to keep practically all the chipmunks on Foss Mt. supplied throughout the winter. "

In the same letter, she writes about a garter snake that she observed after it ate something, "probably a frog." She describes how the snake "swam gracefully and quickly.." Finally, she reports about the "coons" that have come back, "the babies nearly as big as their mother now."

On March 10, 1965, Nella wrote to Helen as she prepared to head to New Hampshire for the summer. Just as enthralled by the wildlife at her home in Garden City, New York, Nella tells Helen about the rabbits that were eating her garden. The rabbits were "very frisky and are starting it now on such things as violet leaves and snowdrops. O, dear, oh dear!" she concludes.

These letters would have helped Helen, an animal lover herself, learn more about animals and their behaviors. Nella describes the animals and their activities in great detail, including information about their appearance and environment, painting a rich picture for Helen to enjoy and connect to.

Note: Susanna Coit is the Archives and Research Library Assistant at the Perkins School for the Blind.

AFB Applauds Senate Approval of the Marrakesh Treaty Implementation Act

Mark Richert

Mark Richert, AFB's Director of Public Policy

A hearty kudos to the United States Senate for ratifying the Marrakesh Treaty—unanimously, I might add—and passing its implementing legislation, the Marrakesh Treaty Implementation Act (S. 2559), which aims to facilitate access to materials in a specialized format to eligible individuals, including and especially individuals who are blind or visually impaired.

It has been the longstanding belief of the American Foundation for the Blind that access to books is a basic human right, the denial of which should not and cannot be tolerated by civilized countries in the twenty-first century. Further, this historic Treaty, along with its implementing legislation once passed in the House, would make available an additional 350,000 accessible books for people living in the United States.

Along with our colleagues in the American Council of the Blind and the National Federation of the Blind, we are grateful to see the Senate take this action now so that people with vision loss all around the world can enjoy and benefit from this right more freely. This bipartisan and broadly supported move by the Senate is a rare and welcome expression of policymakers coming together to do what's right for people with disabilities. A special shoutout to Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), who sponsored the bill, and co-sponsors Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-UT), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Sen. Patrick J Leahy (D-VT), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-IL), Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA), Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-DE), Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-CO), Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), and Sen. Robert P. Casey, Jr. (D-PA).