W hen the internet is riddled with conspiracy theories, it can be difficult to decide which to worry about. While QAnon and Pizzagate are proving themselves to have radicalising potential with real-world repercussions, others are flourishing beneath the radar, or certainly going unnoticed by anyone over the age of 25. What I mean to say is: teenagers on TikTok doubt the existence of Helen Keller.
I know – I had to read that sentence a few times, too. How could Keller’s existence be up for debate? There is extant film footage of the author, activist and disability rights advocate, who became deafblind after a childhood illness, learned to communicate using hand gestures and to understand others through the Tadoma method, and learned how to speak. She attended Harvard, 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.
None of this seems to matter. Screenwriter Daniel Kunka, who came across the conspiracy theory when speaking to his teenage nephews and nieces, said they and other proponents don’t doubt the existence of Helen Keller the woman, but the fact that she was both deaf and blind, yet still able to write books. Setting aside the offensiveness of this assumption for a moment, the conspiracy seems to have started as a joke. Anyone who has met a member of Gen Z knows that they are creatures of the internet, and as such have an almost awe-inspiring grasp of irony. They are walking examples of what has come to be called “context collapse”. And yet it does seem that some teenagers do doubt Keller’s achievements, or, in some cases, that she was disabled at all. Some of the videos have been removed, with TikTok telling Newsweek that any post that “dehumanises others on the basis of a disability is a violation of our community guidelines”. But others remain up. “Does it stem from our own insecurities – could it be that a blind, deaf woman with more success in life than all of us is too much to grasp? Possibly,” writes one young woman on Medium, with such extraordinary solipsism that this correspondent had to take a moment.
Anyone with a shred of sense knows that human beings are able to achieve extraordinary things, whatever the hurdles they may face
Obviously, the entire theory is shockingly ableist, and 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”. After a stroke left him with locked-in syndrome, Jean-Dominique Bauby wrote The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by blinking his left eyelid. Naoki Higashida, who is severely autistic and has limited verbal communication skills, wrote The Reason I Jump using an alphabet grid. Donna Williams overcame shocking abuse and prejudice to produce her 1992 memoir Nobody Nowhere. These are just a few examples of an entire body of literature produced by disabled authors over the years.
Isn’t it men of a certain age who are the keenest proponents of, for example, the abelist, sexist and highly patronising notion that Gen Z activist Greta Thunberg has been coached?
It would be easy to be all “teenagers today!” about the Helen Keller theory. Perhaps, on some level, that is what Gen Z wants. (I am still half-inclined to think that this is all a gigantic wind-up, it is that stupid.) And yet, to blame this entirely on a generation ignores the fact that these views do not occur in a vacuum. Who taught them this attitude to disability, after all?
Until society as a whole takes a more nuanced attitude to disability, prejudices such as these will continue to exist. All we can do now is have a conversation with the teenagers in our lives about Keller and ableism – and how social media spreads disinformation to the point where anyone can claim someone is not real.