This week was Helen Keller's birthday. I feel her profound influence often, especially this last month when I gave the commencement addresses at two state schools for the blind. Keller graduated from the Perkins School for the Blind herself.
Every time I enter the doors of similar schools that specialize in serving students with very unique needs, I feel as if I am walking a blessed pathway ... I myself am a proud graduate of the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
However, standing on those stages, celebrating the graduation of a combined twenty blind and visually impaired teens, I couldn't shake a persistent thought: what Helen Keller worked so hard to do is not yet finished. We need to do better to insure brighter pathways for those with special needs in our society.
Right now, data suggests that potentially 70% of those who are blind or visually impaired are unemployed.
Though specifics are hard to pin down, the employment landscape is distinctly grim. Using that percentage, of those twenty graduates I addressed, only six would be likely to find employment in the future.
The valedictorian who spoke at one of these graduations lost her place during her speech, pausing for several seconds while her fingers scrambled over the braille notes in front of her. The auditorium held its breath while she sought the next segment of her address. Eventually, she carried on and received a standing ovation when she concluded. I like to think that standing ovation was collectively for her high GPA, her speech, and especially her resilience.
I also like to think that this valedictorian, as a young blind woman, will be able to use her skills, dreams, and that resilience to propel her into a successful future, but we are not where we need to be as a society while the odds are so stacked against her and her peers. Education institutions on all levels, support services, and employers must find ways to equip all graduates to become vital, thriving members of a society where limitations are minimized and abilities are amplified. Society itself must do more to open doors and value diversity. Helen Keller knew this years ago, and we must still know it now.
When I walked up to the podium where the valedictorian had stood, settling my guide dog beside me, I delivered what I hope was an inspiring and affirming speech. As 2015 Indiana Teacher of the Year, I felt compelled to do more, say more, embody more than their average commencement speakers. I felt the legacy of Helen Keller, and I felt the burden and privilege of passing on that legacy to the next generation. Maybe I did...I hope so. But as I stepped away from the podium afterward during my own standing ovation, I longed for the day when I could be certain that 70% was nothing more than a blurry something pondered in history books, an uncomfortable estimate that rose from a time right before things turned around for people with disabilities. Until then, the twenty graduates and I must do what Helen Keller once said: "Never bend your head. Always hold it high. Look the world straight in the face."
We're looking, world!