Sunday, June 22, 2014

Guest Post! Helen Keller and Education for People Who Are Blind: Ann Arbor Library Exhibit

I was on my way into the main branch of the Ann Arbor District Library for this school board meeting when I noticed that there was an interesting exhibit.

Hall Braille Writer. Picture by Patti Smith.

The Exhibit & My Interest in Helen Keller

Called Child in a Strange Country: Helen Keller and the History of Education for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired, the exhibit is up through Wednesday, June 25th (coincidentally, the next school board meeting), in both the lobby and on the third floor of the library. So yes--that means you can see the exhibit before you go into the school board meeting! Convenient, huh?

Most people don't know that I have had a special interest in Helen Keller ever since Skyline High School did The Miracle Worker as its very first play, when everybody in the school was a ninth grader. My daughter played the role of Annie Sullivan, and as a result, I learned a lot about Helen Keller.

Guest Blogger Reviews the Exhibit--With Pictures, Too!

"Wait," I thought--"I know somebody who teaches children with visual impairments, and she's a blogger. I wonder if she would review this for me? And she did, and she took pictures, too! 

About the guest blogger: Patti Smith is a special education teacher of the visually impaired and learning disabled. She lives in Ann Arbor with her fiance and their two cats. She also blogs at

Thank you, Patti! And I hope the rest of you enjoy the review and pictures, and then are motivated to go see the exhibit.

One of the things that I do in my job as a special education teacher is to try to show people what it is like to have a disability. Of course, a ten-minute demonstration in no way compares to a lifelong condition, but it’s often an eye-opening experience for the participant.

Moon Type. Picture by Patti Smith.
Because I work with students who are visually impaired (and some who are deaf-blind), I am often asked about Helen Keller. Most people have seen the movie and remember the “water, Helen, water” scene at the end. What many people don’t know is that Helen lived a very full life—meeting with presidents, becoming an advocate for women’s rights, having deep and fulfilling relationships, and traveling around the world. Perhaps most importantly, she taught the world that students with disabilities can be taught and can go on to do great things.

Currently, the Ann Arbor District Library has an exhibit on Ms. Keller. On loan from the American Printing House for the Blind, the exhibit features a brief history on Helen’s life as well as a larger display of the educational tools that are used to teach students who are blind and visually impaired.

A Braille slate writer. Picture by Patti Smith.
The exhibit features everything from the earliest tactile books to the latest Braille writers. The original tactile books were raised letters embossed on paper. In the early 1800s, Boston Line Type was developed by Samuel Gridley Howe. This system used angular Roman letters and did not capitalize its words. Around the same time the Lucas Type was developed, using a raised system of straight lines, curved lines, and dots that was based on shorthand. William Moon developed a system that reduced words to their simplest forms and read from left to right on one line, right to left on the next. These codes, while useful for reading, all shared the same problem—there was no simple way to write using any of them.

A tactile modern puzzle map of the U.S. from 2001.
Picture by Patti Smith.
The raised dot code known as the Braille Code eventually became the standard system for people who are blind. One could both read and write using the six dot code. This code includes all letters of the alphabet, numbers, scientific notation and math (the Nemeth Code), and almost 200 short form words and contractions.

Seeing this exhibit reminded me of how far we have comes in terms of special education. In Helen’s day, most students with disabilities were not educated. Today, we have students who are deaf-blind sitting in classrooms alongside their peers and learning the appropriate curriculum. It’s cliché to say “you’ve come a long way, baby," but if the shoe fits….

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