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Spring 2001 Table of Contents
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Look the World Straight in the Eye

Terry Murphy, Executive Director, Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services (formerly known as Texas Commision for the Blind)

The majority of the Commission's staff knows I'm big on inspirational quotes, so they appear from time to time in my mail. One such piece of paper recently caught my eye primarily because the sender had highlighted the name Helen Keller. From The Book of Positive Quotations by John Cook, Keller was quoted as saying:

"Never bend your head. Hold it high. Look the world straight in the eye."

Wow, those simple words exude so much confidence! I was hooked, so I spent some time over the next few days reacquainting myself with this impressive woman.

I found that Keller was among "The 50 Most Famous People of the Century" in the December 1999 issue of Biography Magazine, which didn't surprise me. Although her life spanned two centuries (1880-1968), she left an indelible mark on the century in which you readers and I were born. Keller became the "poster person" for triumphant achievement in the face of physical disability in the 1900s. Blind, deaf, and unable to speak as a result of an unidentified ailment contracted when she was 19 months old, Keller nonetheless went on to graduate cum laude from Radcliffe. She traveled the globe, wrote 14 books, and lectured.

The person who helped Keller gain the confidence to "look the world straight in the eye" was her teacher, Annie Sullivan. Sullivan connected Helen to the world of possibilities at age 6. Once Keller realized from Sullivan that everything had a name, she was insatiable. Within six months, it is said, she had learned the manual alphabet and could read braille. One biography said that she went on to learn German, Latin, Greek, and French. All this says a lot about both the teacher and the student.

I venture a guess that there are few adults today who haven't seen, heard, or read one or more versions of "The Miracle Worker," originally a play in which Sullivan and Keller were immortalized by William Gibson. The title itself says a lot about human nature. Back in the 1880s, Sullivan's ability to help Helen understand a world of sight and sound without seeing or hearing was indeed thought to be a "miracle."

An even bigger "miracle" in the early to mid-1900s was that Keller went on to use her understanding and education to earn a living by writing and lecturing. Unfortunately, this type of miracle mindset about successful and productive people with visual and hearing losses still prevails today. I tend to think that Keller and Sullivan would say that being brought together as student and teacher may indeed have been a miracle, but that Helen's successful "employment and independent living outcomes," as we would say in today's vocational rehabilitation field, were instead the result of a whole lot of hard work and perseverance on both their parts!

I couldn't help wondering as I read more about Keller what she and Annie Sullivan would have to say about the Commission's "Texas Confidence Builders" service model if they were here today. After wandering through a few more of her words, I'm pretty sure they would say it's nothing new to them. Consider these:

"We can do anything we want if we stick to it long enough."

"One can never consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar."

And my favorite:

"The world is moved not only by the mighty shoves of the heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker."

I believe Sullivan thought of herself as an honest worker, not a hero. I think she would say that the way TCB provides services is similar to her approach in helping Helen - with tiny pushes of hope, optimism, determination, and honesty. From her background, Sullivan knew that if Keller could first learn alternative speech and communication techniques she would gain the confidence to tackle even more. I don't believe that Sullivan knew what Helen was fully capable of accomplishing. She just knew that with each step forward, a higher goal was possible. In those inevitable times when young Helen probably balked at something new or difficult, I can just see Sullivan pushing Helen gently forward even after adulthood because she knew Helen's self-confidence would grow as she learned and practiced new skills.

TCB workers are sometimes criticized for not giving up when individuals set their feet in concrete and refuse to learn alternate skills from which to choose in varying situations. We can't force a person to put forth the effort, but we don't give up as easily as we once did. From experience we learned that an individual who concludes vocational rehabilitation or independent living services after choosing to learn a minimum of skills will generally return time and again to the agency for assistance. When so many of these returning individuals said they found they lacked the self-confidence to resolve problems for themselves, Texas Confidence Builders was born.

We believe the "tiny pushes" Keller speaks about so eloquently are worth the potential criticism if we succeed in reaching individuals with the truth that living in a society primarily configured for sight and sound has enough barriers of its own without individuals limiting themselves. This last quote I came across pretty much sums up the lives of Sullivan and Keller, TCB workers, and the many individuals the Commission is challenging to be the best they can be. Helen Keller says:

"I am only one; but I am still one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. I will not refuse to do the something I can do."

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Last Revision: September 1, 2003