April 13 2016 11:48 AM

New exhibit looks at education for the blind

"Child in a Strange Country," on display at the Michigan Historical Museum and Library of Michigan rotunda, uses interactive stations to teach visitors about the history of education for the blind.
Bill Castanier/City Pulse

In 1961, child star Patty Duke was playing Helen Keller in the Broadway version of “The Miracle Worker” when a meeting was arranged between Duke and the 81-year-old Keller. Duke would later call the meeting “special,” recalling how she spelled words in the hand of Keller.

This month, Michigan residents have a unique opportunity to learn more about Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan, as well as the dramatic evolution of teaching tools for the blind, through “Child in a Strange Country.” The exhibit, which is free and open to the public, is on display in the rotunda of the Michigan Historical Museum and Library of Michigan through May 22.

Thanks largely to the 1962 film version of “The Miracle Worker,” Keller’s name has become synonymous with perseverance and accomplishing great things against great odds. Keller was a young girl when a sudden illness took both her sight and hearing. Thought to be un-teachable, she was likely doomed to institutionalization until her parents, encouraged by Alexander Graham Bell, sent her to a school for the blind.

Sullivan, Keller’s partially blind teacher, used innovative blind teaching techniques and her imagination to teach Keller how to read, write and speak. Keller attended Radcliffe College and became the first blind and deaf person to receive a bachelor of arts degree.

The exhibit explores both the history of education for the blind and the modern techniques and devices that have been developed since 1888, when Keller became a student at the Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts.

Collette Bauman, director of the Michigan Department of Education’s Low Incidence Outreach program, said it took more than three years to get the hands-on exhibit to Michigan.

“It’s cool when you see students interacting with the wonderful assistive technology,” she said.

The exhibit comprises 15 stations featuring interactive equipment and historic photographs. It takes visitors through the history of education for the blind. It wasn’t that long ago that education for the blind and the deaf was centralized in state-run schools like north Lansing’s School for the Blind, which closed in 1995. (The piano used by the school’s most famous graduate, Stevie Wonder, is on display in the permanent exhibits of the Michigan Historical Museum.)

Bauman has worked in special education for more than 40 years. She remembers teaching the periodic table and graphing by constructing charts and graphs out of glue, yarn and sand. Today, those methods have been replaced by modern teaching devices. The exhibit will give the public the opportunity to see how educational content is delivered today to over 4,800 blind and visually impaired students in Michigan.

“Many technological advances have begun as teaching devices for the blind,” Bauman said.

These innovations include audio books and talking calculators, measuring devices and other assistive devices made possible by advances in computer technology. Even smartphones and the tablets are adapted for use by the blind. The exhibit will help visitors experience what it was like for the young Keller to learn how to read and write nearly 130 years ago and compare it to modern techniques.

“Child in a Strange Country” covers much of Keller’s life, but what this exhibit — and all of the biopics —fails to mention is Keller’s social activism as an adult. Keller became a noted public speaker on education and special needs children. She was also an outspoken socialist, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World union, a pacifist and a suffragette. She protested nuclear war and give money to civil rights organizations.

She received criticism for her leftist leanings, but was mostly given a pass by the media because of the trauma of her past. One editor at the time wrote that her “mistakes sprung out of the manifest limitations of her development.”

During her lifetime, she was a frequent subject on the front page of the Daily Worker, espousing social causes. As she grew older, she seemed to draw strength from her own traumatic past and spoke frankly about the plight of the poor and downtrodden. In 1920, she became a cofounder of the ACLU.

As an advocate for social justice, Keller once told an audience, “Until the great mass of people shall be filled with the sense of responsibility for each other’s welfare, social justice can never be attained.”

“Child in a Strange Country”

On display through May 22 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday- Friday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, 1-5 p.m. Sunday FREE Library of Michigan and Michigan Historical Museum 702 W. Kalamazoo St., Lansing (517) 373 3559, mdelio.org