Even before social media became a plan to embolden conspiracy theories, people have been underestimating what disabled people are able to accomplish. I grew up with hearing loss, so my peers made fun of me because I couldn’t hear their whispers, and adults questioned whether I should take foreign language classes with my classmates because they doubted my abilities and my intelligence. As a result, I didn’t have a lot of drive in elementary school because I didn’t think I was capable of achieving much—until I learned about Helen Keller, a DeafBlind disability rights activist, author, and original member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Keller taught me that I could resist the urge to be invisible; instead, I could be just as accomplished as my nondisabled classmates. I am now fluent in French—despite some people believing I couldn’t learn a second spoken language. Some of the naysayers who doubted me now only acknowledge that I can fluently speak French—not the work that went into making it possible.
Unfortunately, a bizarre TikTok trend is now erasing Keller—and spreading the lie that she never existed to begin with. In May 2020, TikTok user, @alleyesonharshita, used the hashtag #HelenKellerWasntReal to provide “evidence” that Keller wasn’t a real woman. In the now-deleted TikTok, @alleyesonharshita said that Keller couldn’t have written an autobiography because she was blind. The idea soon caught on: Another user, @ansleylbone_, posted a video captioned, “Helen Keller is a fraud and I stand by that” with Doja Cat’s 2019 song, “Say So,” playing in the background. A September 2020 TikTok from @vanillaapricot showing her pretending to be Keller and being caught saying hi to a gardener has 1.9 million likes. These TikTok questions are erroneously declaring that Keller couldn’t possibly have achieved all she did in her lifetime. How could she have done so much as a DeafBlind person? Is it possible?
When considering Keller’s legacy, it’s crucial to examine the full story of her life: Born in 1880, she became deaf and blind at 19 months due to an illness. She learned to communicate at the age of 7 after her teacher, Anne Sullivan, taught her how to read, speak, and write. Thanks to the tools she learned from Sullivan, Keller became the first recorded DeafBlind person to receive a bachelor of arts degree. She also wrote numerous books and became involved in myriad social-justice issues, including supporting the NAACP and cofounding the ACLU. Keller was an exceptional, accomplished person—not because she was DeafBlind—because of what she achieved, but there are still stains on her legacy that should be discussed. For a brief period of time, Keller supported the eugenics movement, which viewed her fellow disabled people as inferior members of the human race. Still, she showed that it’s possible for disabled people, myself included, not to conform to other people’s ableist notions of what disabled people could accomplish.
Though I was disappointed when I first learned about the conspiracy theory about Keller being a fictional character rather than a real woman, I wasn’t shocked. Outside of the rampant misinformation about Keller’s life, social media posts about her tend to be ableist, poking fun at her blindness. Even on Twitter, accounts like @HAKisfake and @HoaxHellen purport that Keller “deceived us,” and entire Reddit threads call her existence and her accomplishments into question. Ableism is embedded in social media itself: There has been an increase in the online harassment of disabled people in recent years, and there’s still a lot to be done to make the platforms themselves more accessible. In 2019, The Verge reported that TikTok limited the reach of disabled creators allegedly to “protect users with a high risk of bullying.” Though TikTok has allegedly stopped this practice, the platform received immense backlash for using its algorithm to discriminate against disabled people.
In order to stop this conspiracy theory about Helen Keller and others that will spring up about other disabled people, we must dismantle stereotypes about disabled people in their entirety.
If TikTok wanted to help its disabled users, it would have limited the reach of users spreading the lie that Keller could have never accomplished what she did rather than silencing disabled creators. Even when disabled people are supposedly being celebrated online, it often amounts to little more than inspiration porn, with several viral videos showing disabled people simly living their lives. Take, for instance, the brand of popular videos that shows babies reacting to wearing cochlear implants for the first time. They’re intended to make viewers feel good, but disability shouldn’t serve as a form of entertainment, especially without a person’s consent. Rather than our accomplishments or our humanity being centered, we’re dehumanized and objectified. All this leads to the false perception that disabled people have limitations or that we’re incapable of accomplishing our goals without the aid of nondisabled people.
Here’s the reality: Disabled people don’t base their lives on the notions nondisabled people have about us. The perception that nondisabled people have of disabled people’s abilities can lead to the erasure of disability in some instances, which undermines the impact disability has on people’s lives. For example, it’s impossible to write a piece about Frida Kahlo’s artwork without mentioning how her disability both inspired and impacted her physical movement. In order to stop this conspiracy theory about Keller and others that will spring up about other disabled people, we must dismantle stereotypes about disabled people in their entirety. These stereotypes directly play into why this kind of conspiracy has been able to fester without much pushback. Keller was the only disabled person I was taught about in elementary school, and even then, we were limited to basic facts about her life. Learning about one token disabled person is not going to teach kids about how passionate, hardworking, and great the disability community can be, if the culture of doubt about what disabled people are capable of is so great that nondisabled people would rather imagine that we simply don’t exist.