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Helen Keller on Trial

Donate A bizarre subculture of Helen Keller Truthers believe that she was either faking her deafblindness or even that she didn't exist at all.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under History & Pseudohistory

Skeptoid Podcast #937
May 21, 2024
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Helen Keller on Trial

Helen Keller was a very real person. She was born in 1880 and lost her sight and her hearing following an illness, probably meningitis, when she was 19 months old. Nevertheless, she learned to read, write, and speak, and became an author, an advocate for the disabled, and as one of the world's most famous people, was highly in demand as a public speaker. So it may surprise you to learn that there is a subculture of Helen Keller Truthers, people who don't believe that she was actually blind or deaf, or even that she ever existed at all. Yes, if you can imagine it, you can probably find it on the Internet.

Young Helen and her family's cook's daughter learned a few dozen hand signs between themselves, but beyond this, few had any insight into the girl's mind. The family doctor connected them with Alexander Graham Bell. Bell referred them in turn to the Perkins Institute for the Blind, where she was paired with a teacher. At the age of 8, Keller's world finally opened up. She learned to spell, to sign, to read, and to write. With only her hands as her window to the world, she soon became as conversant as any of us — and in some ways, much more so.

Although there always have and always will be people who are incredulous at the notion of a person with deafblindness being able to learn to read and write and speak, this newest wave got its start in 2020 on TikTok, the Internet's favorite repository for everything from awesome dancing to the most atrocious misinformation. Many of these videos get taken down, as they violate community guidelines on hate speech directed at people with disabilities; but of those you can still find, the basic drive seems to be little more than a somewhat ignorant disbelief that a deafblind person could learn to communicate fluently. This feeds in nicely to the conspiracy-hungry nature of some in the TikTok community, and before you know it there's a subculture of Helen Keller Truthers telling the sheeple to wake up and stop believing the mainstream dogma that such a person was real.

However, there's nothing all that extraordinary about any person of normal intelligence learning all the same things anyone else can learn. The basic techniques by which they can learn and use language, both signed and spoken, are not rocket science. Sign language is used by placing the hand of the person talking inside the hand of the person listening such that all the movements can be felt, sometimes called hand-over-hand signing or tactile signing. Spoken language can be understood and learned using a technique called the Tadoma Method, after two deafblind students named Tad and Oma who learned it. The fingers are placed on the speaker's face, touching the lips, jaw, and throat. The vibrations can be felt and the lip and jaw movements as well. Using this method, people with deafblindness can understand a total stranger who knows no sign language, and can speak back to them. Helen Keller used these techniques and was a perfectly fluent communicator, though she always expressed frustration that she'd never been able to develop speech that was easily understood by most people. But she wielded her communication skills into a dizzying array of accomplishments.

She wrote 14 books. She testified in front of Congress for the rights of the disabled. She traveled to 35 countries as a goodwill ambassador and advocate. She was the first known deafblind person to earn a bachelor's degree. She was friends with Mark Twain. Her 1903 autobiography The Story of My Life was a large part of the source material for the 1962 movie The Miracle Worker in which she was portrayed by the very famous actress Patty Duke.

One of the things Keller enjoyed doing was flying airplanes, which she did on at least two occasions. In 1919 at the age of 39, she took the controls of a Curtiss JN Jenny biplane over southern California for 30 minutes, with a pilot sitting in the rear seat who took over when needed. Then in 1946 at the age of 66, she was traveling from Rome to Paris when she and her companion, Polly Thompson, went up to the cockpit of the Douglas C-54 Skymaster, a four-engined World War II transport plane. She sat in the co-pilot's seat and was in sole control for 20 minutes, while Thompson relayed the pilot's instructions via hand-over-hand signing. These flights were widely reported in newspapers and newsreels.

In 1920, the year after her biplane flight, she joined a group of 11 prominent Americans to co-found the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) with the mission "to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States."

Rarely one to sit on her laurels, Keller even wrote a letter to Adolf Hitler in 1933 after learning that her books were among those banned and burned in Germany (though she changed her mind and addressed the letter instead to the "Student Body of Germany"). The letter began:

History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas. Tyrants have tried to do that often before, and the ideas have risen up in their might and destroyed them. You can burn my books and the books of the best minds in Europe, but the ideas in them have seeped through a million channels, and will continue to quicken other minds.

The world is full of the proof that Helen Keller was a real person who actually did all she did, and actually was both blind and deaf. That there are Helen Keller Truthers out there denying all of this boggles the mind. There is even ample video out there of Keller speaking and traveling, even flying the biplane. You can see her and hear her, just as you can see and hear anyone else who actually exists.

Keller's extraordinary life can be attributed, at least in part, to her teachers. None of these were more influential than the one who would become her constant companion, Anne Sullivan. Sullivan was a teacher at the Perkins Institution for the Blind (today called the Perkins School for the Blind), founded in 1829. This is where the Tadoma Method was created, and has since its inception been the world's leading center for the development and teaching of communication skills for those with sensory disabilities.

Anne Sullivan's own story is hardly any less remarkable than Keller's. She lost most of her vision following trachoma when she was five years old. Soon after that, her mother died and her father left. She and her brother Jimmie were placed in the Tewksbury institution alongside mental patients, and Jimmie soon died of tuberculosis. Tewksbury was often under investigation for cruel treatment including sexual abuse. Sullivan had a series of unsuccessful operations on her eyes, both at Tewksbury and another hospital, leaving her with infections and nearly total blindness. She appealed to a visiting inspector to transfer her to Perkins, and it was granted.

At Perkins she had more operations on her eyes, which helped restore much of her vision. After she graduated, the director recommended her as a teacher to the parents of Helen Keller. The relationship was immediately successful, and at Sullivan's urging, the two of them were soon at Perkins to stay: Sullivan as a teacher, and Keller as the student who would ultimately become the school's most famous. Sullivan was Keller's constant companion for the rest of her life, even through a short marriage to a teacher at Harvard who had helped Keller get published.

Sullivan lost her vision completely due to a stroke at the age of 35, and for the next 35 years until her death at 70, she was Keller's companion, teacher, tour manager, publicist, and best friend — all while completely blind herself.

Surely these two women — Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan — must have been uniquely talented. Surely the handicap of being both blind and deaf must be so debilitating that few would be able to overcome it, right? Wrong. Turns out that, especially these days when opportunity is extended a lot more than it was in Keller's day, the average person with deafblindness is nearly as likely to be successful as anyone else. And such people are not are rare as you might think. Check out the stories of a few more people:

Victorine Morriseau (1789-1832) was a French woman with deafblindness who is thought to be the first such person to learn to speak a language, in her case French. She is also thought to be the first to have received an education, though in her case it was religious only. Little else is known about her.

Laura Bridgman (1829-1889) was a predecessor of Keller's at Perkins. She became deafblind at the age of two from scarlet fever. She was a friend of Sullivan's while they were both students at Perkins. When the author Charles Dickens visited Perkins once, he met her and was greatly impressed, writing about her and making her famous. She was the first person with deafblindness to receive a complete education, and the World War II liberty ship SS Laura Bridgman was named after her.

Theresa Poh Lin Chan (1943-2016), born in Singapore, had the advantage of hearing until the age of 12, and of sight until the age of 14. Consequently she spoke fluently and had little trouble communicating. She attended Perkins as well, and in 1961 got to meet her hero, Helen Keller. She became a writer and teacher.

Elsa Sjunneson (born 1985) is an American fiction writer who has been deafblind since birth. Her works have won both Hugo and Aurora Awards — and that's a lot more than most authors can say.

Haben Girma (born 1988) lost her hearing and almost all of her sight to disease in early childhood. With the advantage of growing up in the United States with digital Braille devices and the Americans with Disabilities Act, Girma became the first person with deafblindness to graduate from Harvard Law School.

And that's just five; there are many, many more. My question to the Helen Keller Truthers is whether they think all of these people are faking it? Or do they think none of them exist? Do they think no blind people exist, or no deaf people? Nobody's perfect, so by that same logic, does anybody exist?

Obviously, no one listening to this today needs to be lectured on the value to the world of giving everyone the opportunity to fulfill their potential. To the few Helen Keller Truthers out there, whose basic premise seems to be that nobody with deafblindness could possibly have significant potential, what can I say. Buy a book. That is, if you can read it as well as they can.

By Brian Dunning

Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.


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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Helen Keller on Trial." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 21 May 2024. Web. 20 Jun 2024. <>


References & Further Reading

Einhorn, L. Helen Keller, Public Speaker: Sightless But Seen, Deaf But Heard. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Hickok, L. The Story of Helen Keller. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1958.

Keller, H. The Story of My Life. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1966.

Lash, J. Helen and Teacher: The Story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy. New York: Delacorte Press, 1980.

McGinnity, B.L., Seymour-Ford, J., Andries, K.J. "Helen Keller." Perkins History Museum. Perkins School for the Blind, 1 Jan. 2004. Web. 9 May. 2024. <>

Schroeder, A. "What the heck is going on with TikTok and Helen Keller?" Daily Dot. The Daily Dot, 7 Jan. 2021. Web. 8 May. 2024. <>


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