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Yes, Helen Keller was real, and she did all those things

Many teens fall for sarcastic posts or misinformation
In a video on his TikTok account, Keith Runk argues that Helen Keller’s handwriting appears to be too neat to belong to a deaf and blind person. Screenshot from Runk’s TikTok video.
In a video on his TikTok account, Keith Runk argues that Helen Keller’s handwriting appears to be too neat to belong to a deaf and blind person. Screenshot from Runk’s TikTok video.

Helen Keller was blind and deaf, but she could read, she wrote books, and she flew a plane. Yet a surprising number of teenagers don’t believe any of that – due at least in part to a series of viral TikToks and other social media trends.

Keller was an important figure in the Deaf-Blind community, but many members of Gen Z are convinced that her achievements are not real. 

Keller lost her sight and hearing after an illness she caught at 19 months old. At the age of 7, Anne Sullivan taught Keller how to communicate with tactile sign language. As this PBS article indicates, she became the first Deaf-Blind person in the United States to earn a bachelor’s degree, and she was a prolific author and political activist. She campaigned for many different causes like women’s suffrage, labor rights, and disability rights.

According to a Slate article, the first TikTok video posted to the hashtag #HelenKellerWasntReal came in May 2020, and it was supported by many people in the comments section. That video has since been taken down, according to the article.

Another video questioning Keller’s achievements was posted on TikTok in December 2020 by user Krunk19, who said in a TikTok direct message interview that his name is Keith Runk.

I have no control over how things are received.”

— Keith Runk

“I’ve heard it my whole life. She’s deaf. She’s blind. She’s amazing. No. Guess what, she lied,” Runk says in the TikTok, which has been viewed 2 million times and shared over 34,000 times.

Runk’s TikTok profile indicates that the account is “purely satire,” although Runk confirmed that the disclaimer was added to his bio after he had already posted the Keller video. 

He said there have been a variety of responses to the TikTok.

“It was intended to be funny and a lot of people saw it for that, and a lot didn’t,” Runk said. “I have no control over how things are received. I can only approve or disapprove of what I’ve made and post it. The rest is up to the audience to decide, and that is none of my concern.”

Runk said he did not expect his video to get so much attention. He said his suspicions about Keller’s achievements date back to 2016, when he and several coworkers saw a photo of Keller’s signature and were surprised by how neat it was.

“I ran with that and used that as my ‘proof’ that she didn’t accomplish what we were taught she did,” Runk said.

In the TikTok, Runk incorrectly states that Keller could not fly a plane or write multiple books.

“12 books! That’s not even a realistic number for somebody that had all of their senses,” Runk said.

In fact, the list of authors who have written at least 12 books is long, and it includes Stephen King, Issac Asimov, Charles Dickens, Nicholas Sparks, Michael Crichton, John Grisham, Jackie Collins, James Baldwin, and Agatha Christie, among others.

In total, Keller wrote 14 books and over 475 speeches and essays. As this article from the Perkins School for the Blind indicates, she communicated by using hand signals, braille, and feeling peoples’ lips. She memorized where the letters were on a typewriter to type her works.

A Guardian newspaper article refuted the false claim that Keller did not write books and cited other instances of people with disabilities writing books. 

“After a stroke left him with locked-in syndrome, Jean-Dominique Bauby wrote The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by blinking his left eyelid,” the Guardian article said. “Naoki Higashida, who is severely autistic and has limited verbal communication skills, wrote The Reason I Jump using an alphabet grid.”

As for Keller flying a plane, that has been authenticated by the fact-checking website Snopes in an article written by Madison Dapcevich after Runk’s TikTok spread through the internet. 

The article covers how Keller did, in fact, fly a plane for 20 minutes over the Mediterranean Sea. Dapcevich cites a 1946 news article from the American Foundation for the Blind reporting on the flight.

The 1946 article includes an interview with Polly Thomson, Keller’s friend, who sat alongside her as a translator. Thomson explained how she communicated instructions from the pilot, who was seated beside her, to Keller “through hand talk.”

The Snopes story also includes a video of a different Keller flight, this one over Southern California in 1919. 

It blows my mind that there still are those preconceived notions about people with disabilities.”

— Lindsey Graney

It is possible that many find it hard to believe that Keller flew a plane due to differing interpretations of the term “flew.” The 1946 article states that Thompson and the pilot gave Keller instructions, and Keller steered the plane. She did not fly the plane as the only person in the plane, as many people have come to believe.

Dapcevich, a science and health fact checker for Snopes since 2020, said the Keller issue presented a particular challenge because of the way it spread. 

“The Helen Keller video is unique in that because we saw it circulating across platforms, we had to get to the basis of where that claim was being made,” Dapchevich said.

Lindsey Graney, an American Sign Language teacher at Baldwin, finds these widespread misconceptions about Keller to be frustrating.

“It blows my mind that there still are those preconceived notions about people with disabilities,” Graney said.

This doubt about Keller’s accomplishments is harmful because it promotes bias against people with disabilities, Graney said. Because Graney has taught a Deaf-Blind person in the past, she knows how much people with disabilities can achieve. 

“I’m hoping that as a society we are seeing more people with disabilities on the main stage, and I think the more that society sees that, there are no limits,” Graney said. 

Julia Murray, a Deaf-Blind Class of 2022 Baldwin High School graduate, originally thought the Keller debate was a joke.

“Then I saw in the comment section that people were actually debating about her existence,” Murray said.

There has been so much more disability awareness over the past few years, which is amazing to see, but there is still much room for improvement.”

— Julie Murray

With video footage of Keller available, Murray cannot understand how some people do not believe her achievements. Considering Keller’s 14 books, advocacy for the Deaf-Blind community, and work on behalf of women’s suffrage and child labor laws, there is a surplus of evidence for her existence.

“I feel like a lot if it has to do with the fact that being Deaf-Blind is low incidence, so many people have not personally met someone who is Deaf-Blind to see how they navigate the world around them,” said Murray.

Despite the increase in disability awareness the past few years, Murray has still been discriminated against.

“Yes, I have experienced discrimination, which has added challenges to my life,” Murray said. “There has been so much more disability awareness over the past few years, which is amazing to see, but there is still much room for improvement.”

Elizabeth Murray, Julia’s mother and a fourth-grade teacher at Whitehall Elementary, sees the true capabilities of Deaf-Blind people every day. 

“Julia has a positive attitude and inspires others to do the same,” she said. “Each day is a challenge that she faces head on and works hard to overcome each challenge she faces. We are so proud of her for her choices and her drive to succeed at whatever she puts her mind to.” 

Experts outside of Baldwin are quite aware of Keller’s many achievements.

Molly Black is a Family Engagement Consultant for the Pennsylvania Deaf-Blind Project. She is a fan of Keller’s work and influence.

“I often use her quotes when writing, as she was an incredible ‘overcomer’ who did not allow her disability to limit her contributions to society,” Black said.

The doubt instilled in Keller’s accomplishments runs deep, especially in today’s young people. 

Helen Keller prepares for a 1919 flight over Southern California. Screenshot from Helen Keller Channel’s YouTube video cited in Snopes article.

Screenwriter Daniel Kunka created a thread on Twitter in May 2021 that explained how he realized that his niece and nephew did not believe Keller existed.

“They were adamant – Helen Keller was a fraud,” Kunka wrote in the Twitter thread.

Sophomore Nicholai Porol says that he has heard his classmates joke about Keller for years.

“There’s a ton of stuff she could have done. I mean there are blind and deaf people today, so why are people saying she isn’t real? It’s hilariously stupid,” Porol said.

Porol thought that everyone knew that these false posts were a joke. He was shocked to learn that people genuinely discredit Keller so often.   

Junior Jonathan Miklavic has heard multiple people around the school saying that Keller was a myth or that her achievements were not real. 

“I believe at least maybe half the people think that she is made up just because the things she did were so crazy,” Miklavic said.

An informal survey taken for this story seems to back this up, with 19 out of 30 Baldwin students questioned saying they do not believe in Keller’s achievements. 

The Keller situation is far from the only case of misinformation being spread so widely on the internet. 

Another example is the false rumor that Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point, NBA record 1962 game never happened. The Athletic sports website reported this month that Chamberlain’s big game was verified by writer Gary M. Pomerantz in a 2006 book in which he interviewed 56 eyewitnesses, including 15 players, a referee, and an equipment manager.

Just this week, the New York Times ran an article about false social media posts claiming Kate Middleton, the Princess of Wales, is dead. She is not. Within the past month, Snopes has debunked rumors like Charles Darwin’s supposed renunciation of the theory of evolution and iPhone’s ‘journaling suggestions’ settings supposedly revealing names and locations. 

Through her work at Snopes, Dapcevich has seen the danger of spreading misinformation.

“If you are stuck in this echo chamber of reinforcing a belief, then you are more likely to become a wider consumer of misinformation,” she said.

Dapcevich also stressed the importance of fact checking before sharing information on the internet. 

“At the most basic level, if you can’t verify it, don’t share it,” Dapcevich said. 

Disinformation is such a serious issue now that Baldwin High School offers a Media Literacy course. English and media literacy teacher Jason Dolak tries to “prebunk” conspiracy theories rather than debunk them.

“We try to prebunk, which means we try to give students the tools to be able to do your research and navigate the internet in a way that allows you to put in your own checks and balances,” Dolak said.

As for Runk, three years after the original video was posted, his comments about Keller over several interviews were ambiguous. 

“I think I was just able to capitalize on the fact that we, as humans, will so easily write off something as not true because it seems impossible to us, rather than doing the research and verifying anything,” Runk said at one point of his TikTok’s success.

Yet in another interview, Runk was hesitant to say he believes in Keller’s many well documented accomplishments.

“It also is boggling to think about how you teach a person without the two most important senses anything at all,” Runk said. “Let alone everything Helen Keller knew.”

 

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About the Contributors
Katie Fillipih
Katie Fillipih, Staff Writer
Junior Katie Fillipih is a first-year Purbalite Staff Writer. When she isn’t playing softball, she can be found drawing or listening to Reneé Rapp.
Lucas Ovitsky
Lucas Ovitsky, Staff Writer
Sophomore Lucas Ovitsky is a first year Staff Writer. He can be found playing trumpet or listening to music.
Katherine Gruendler
Katherine Gruendler, Staff Writer
Katherine Gruendler is a sophomore and a first-year Staff Writer. She can be found swimming, reading a book, or listening to music. 
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    William ArduinoMar 25, 2024 at 1:48 pm

    Fantastic! We’ll researched and interesting I wish Wilt hadn’t scored 100 against the Knicks!

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