Editor’s Note: Sara Novic is a Deaf writer and assistant professor of creative writing at Stockton University. Her first novel, “Girl at War,” was released by Random House in 2015. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. The Deaf community uses a capital “D” to differentiate between people who identify with Deaf culture and identity, and the physical lack of hearing. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers. View more opinion articles on CNN.
On September 14 the Texas State Board of Education made a series of key votes that could transform the way students learn to understand the world around them – and themselves. Texas wants to remove some content from the social studies curriculum, said board chairperson Donna Bahorich, so that teachers can delve more deeply into certain topics.
Billed as an effort to “streamline” the curriculum, the move spared Baptist pastor Billy Graham, the impeachment trial of former President Clinton and Moses from the chopping block – while Hilary Clinton, Barry Goldwater, Thomas Hobbes and Helen Keller were eliminated.
Perhaps the most overtly dogmatic cut was the deletion of the phrase, “such as holding public officials to their word” from a fourth-grade unit on how to participate in civic affairs. But the erasure of Helen Keller, an iconic advocate for the deaf and blind whose social activism also included women’s suffrage, birth control and pacifism – who is currently taught as part of a third-grade unit on citizenship – is an underhanded play with a troubling message: that homogeny is normal and exposure to outside perspectives should be limited.
To remove Keller from the curriculum also means to eliminate the single touchstone for deafness and disability for most mainstream students. Earlier this week, I asked a room of 35 of my own college students if they’d ever met a deaf person who wasn’t me. Four or five raised their hands—they worked retail and had seen deaf customers. Many of these students are considering fields like social work, education, criminal justice, occupational and speech therapy and law, where knowledge of deafness and disability will be integral to their work, and still their exposure is extremely limited long past the third grade. This is the norm in a society that constantly tells us to avert our eyes from disabled people, to separate out “normal” and “other.”
While studying Keller in school doesn’t guarantee improved interaction between non-disabled and disabled people, things certainly cannot change if students never see even a single example of a deaf or disabled person as an integral member of society. Can we create good non-disabled citizens if they have no frame of reference through which to understand, respect or empathize with their disabled peers, colleagues, charges or supervisors?
Further, is there any hope for deaf or disabled kids, particularly girls, to excel and be the best citizens they can be if they never see themselves as worthy of a place in the historical record? For us, Helen Keller is a role model and a beacon, a reminder of what is possible despite the abuse we may take on the playground or the gaps in the education system that seem designed to lose us.
While the board stressed repeatedly that their decisions were “not political,” it’s easy to wonder whether Keller’s membership in the Socialist party was a factor. And in light of the current federal administration’s active attacks on the rights of disabled people, particularly through the attempted gutting of the Americans with Disabilities Act via H.R. 620 and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s rescinding of 72 guidance documents ensuring the rights of disabled students, marginalizing the disabled is increasingly part of the GOP strategy.
Like the rest of The Texas Board of Education’s cuts, Keller’s removal was justified as a way to save time; without her, says the Board, third-grade teachers will gain 40 minutes per year. But a note from the work group who chose to remove Keller makes their motive clearer: “Helen Keller does not best represent the concept of citizenship. Military and first responders are best represented.”
What is a citizen, and what makes a good one? It’s a question at the heart of so many of the controversies we see playing out across the country today.
While first responders and military personnel are often exemplary citizens and exhibit the qualities of bravery, selflessness and patriotism we value, working in these fields is far from the only way to be a good citizen. Further, to suggest that the singular way to teach a third-grader about good citizenship is through the military is to set early limits on the imaginations of our children, and ultimately curb what future generations can and will do for their communities and country.
Keller – an author and activist who transformed the way people thought about disability and education – was an engaged member of her community and a catalyst for a cultural shift in understanding our humanity. The first deaf-blind person to earn a bachelor’s degree, Keller fought not only for deaf and disabled people’s access to education, but also for women’s rights, worker’s rights and peaceful resolutions to international conflict, overcoming numerous obstacles to give voice to the underrepresented. She was a world traveler, visiting 35 countries to discuss the rights of deaf people abroad. She wrote multiple books, was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. If Keller is not a good citizen, who is?
Fortunately, good citizenship is not a limited resource. To say that we value, that we need teachers, artists, inventors, tradespeople, engineers, scientists, volunteers, religious leaders, non-emergency healthcare providers, public officials and people in all kinds of professions in no way undermines the valor of military personnel or of first responders. To give any one mode of employment a monopoly on essentiality or moral goodness is to deny the basic foundation of our union: different kinds of virtuous, engaged citizens are what make up any successful society, especially America.
Happily, the board has a chance to right this decision in a final vote in November. I hope the citizens of Texas will encourage them to reconsider. Perhaps if the voting parties had seen alternative models for good citizenship reinforced more emphatically throughout their own educational experiences, this question wouldn’t be on the table at all. I, for one, can’t think of a better use of 40 minutes.