Fact Check: Why Is Helen Keller the Subject of a TikTok Conspiracy Theory?

By Nova BarelaLast Updated Apr 30, 2021 2:54:03 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons; TikTok

Over the years, quite a few ableist myths have cropped up around Helen Keller’s life. After contracting an illness, likely meningitis or scarlet fever, at about two years old, Keller lived most of her life as a deaf-blind person. Later on, she would become a renowned author and activist. But, as Smithsonian Magazine puts it, "beyond [those] simple fact[s], there’s a lot of misinformation out there."

Now, four years after the publication of that article, there’s even more misinformation surrounding Keller’s life due, in part, to TikTok. Reportedly, Gen Z TikTokers have been claiming that Keller either didn’t exist or was a fraud. But how did these ableist conspiracy theories start? We’re taking a deep dive into the latest social media scandal.

How Did the Ableist TikTok Conspiracy Theories Start?

Without a doubt, the internet is riddled with conspiracy theories. But it does seem various forms of social media have become the breeding ground for them. As for TikTok, it’s no wonder that the app’s ingenious For You page — an often perfectly curated collection of videos that suit your interests — could also give rise to some wild misinformation. After all, videos that perform well often point out something ironic or something overlooked.

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Photo Courtesy: Walter Sanders/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

In the last few months, Helen Keller became the subject of some of these widely circulated, broad-appeal videos. At first, TikTok users were questioning Keller’s existence, but, then, videos alleged that someone with Keller’s disabilities couldn’t have accomplished what she did in her lifetime. In addition to offensively searching through photographs for "proof" of Keller’s disability, some TikTokers doubled down on ableist videos that mocked Keller’s movements, writings and more.

"How could Keller’s existence be up for debate? There is extant film footage of the author, activist and disability rights advocate," Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett wrote in The Guardian. "She attended Harvard [Radcliffe College], wrote 12 books and many more essays and lectures. Her autobiography was adapted for film and stage. She travelled the world, campaigning on civil rights, labour rights and women’s suffrage. Her book on socialism was burned by the Nazis. She died in 1968. Her birthplace is now a museum." All of this to say, in addition to being incredibly ableist, the TikTok conspiracies undermine Keller’s life and legacy.

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While TikTok removed many of the videos for violating community guidelines, others remain on the app, spreading this misinformation about Keller. One of the details these conspiracy theorists can’t seem to stop talking about is Keller’s eye color, which they believe indicates that she was not blind.

As mentioned above, Keller contracted a fever-inducing illness at a young age. As a result of the high fever, she experienced a change, neurologically speaking. The TikToks wrongly assert that all blind folks have gray eyes, but, most often, that eye coloration is caused by cataracts — a cloudiness that covers the lenses of one’s eye and contributes to their blindness. Since Keller’s blindness did not stem from something physical, there was no manifestation of it in her eye color.

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Cosslett goes on to note that the conspiracy theories and their attempt to uncover so-called ‘evidence’ just "serves as an example of the sort of prejudices that disabled people face every day — particularly those with invisible disabilities, who can find themselves set upon by members of the public for using parking spaces or disabled toilets when they ‘don’t look disabled.’"

Ableism Has Always Undermined Keller’s Life — and That Needs to Change

According to some reports, the TikTok conspiracy theories surrounding Keller started as a "joke." This, of course, doesn’t excuse the out-of-hand misinformation. In fact, it only further underscores the ableism of it all. And, sadly, this isn’t the first time ableist rumors have cropped up around Keller.

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Helen Keller and Polly Thompson, her companion of 34 years, speak on their tour of Australia. Credit: Frederick John Halmarick/Fairfax Media/Getty Images

In fact, many still believe that Keller couldn’t communicate until her famed teacher Anne Sullivan helped her. That ableist myth was, for the most part, perpetuated by her family and the prevailing attitudes of the time. Other myths assert that she couldn’t speak, even though Keller could.

Moreover, during her life, newspaper editors and political figures would dismiss her stances on issues. But, in actuality, Keller was a radical liberal who "noticed the close relationship between disability and poverty, and blamed capitalism and poor industrial conditions for both" (via Time). Additionally, Keller was a co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). As an accomplished author and activist, she spoke out against racism and championed civil rights in all forms. And, in 1964, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award one can attain in the United States.

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The Ableist Conspiracy Theories Don’t Exist in Isolation, Which Makes Them All the More Harmful

Even if the TikTokers responsible for these conspiracy theories didn’t intend to cause harm, there’s no doubt that they have done just that. Not only do these videos and memes disparage Keller’s life, legacy and personhood, but they perpetuate offensive stereotypes — after all, the insinuation that a disabled person could not accomplish what Keller did is incredibly ableist.

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Photo Courtesy: Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images

Moreover, these TikToks subject all disabled folks to ableist harm. "Ableism is the assumption that disabled people are inferior in value or importance or capability to able-bodied people. The issue here is not that this younger generation cares more about truth than older generations (at least not when it comes to Helen Keller)," Adam Morris writes in an article for The Mighty. "The issue is that young people are just as prone to ableism as any other generation." In fact, the conspiracy theory TikToks went viral because of prevailing ableist attitudes.

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