Why Helen Keller’s story in the history books is harmful to people with disabilities – Reckon South
Each year, the city of Tuscumbia, Alabama hosts a production of “The Miracle Worker” in Helen Keller’s hometown of Ivy Green. The play has also been adapted into a film of the same title.
But “The Miracle Worker” (written by William Gibson) is just a dramatization of Keller’s real-life experience as a deafblind child, said Elsa Sjunneson, historian, writer and disability rights activist .
A similar story is commonly found in history textbooks. For example, a story text used in fourth grade classrooms from 2000 states, “Helen Keller was a normal, healthy baby when she was born in Tuscumbia in June 1880. Before she was two years old, she fell very ill. Helen recovered from her illness, but she could not see or hear. Because she couldn’t hear, she didn’t learn to speak. She lived in a world of silent darkness.
He continues: “Helen’s family didn’t know how to teach her. She became difficult to manage. If she didn’t like something, she would kick, bite and scratch.
Painting Helen’s blindness and deafness as making her terrifying and difficult to deal with wasn’t just a misrepresentation of Keller’s young life, it paints the disability as frightening and disturbing, Sjunneson said.
Despite his portrayal in “The Miracle Worker” and the textbooks, Sjunneson recently spoke with Reckon about parts of Keller that are lesser known and challenge ableist tropes.
- Helen had some notion of light and sound
“The Miracle Worker” presents Keller as a confused, difficult, and often angry child who had no ability to understand the world around her. She’s often violent and wild, but the reality of young Helen’s life couldn’t be further from the truth, Sjunneson said.
As an adult, Keller wrote extensively about her experience as a blind and deaf child, including the so-called miracle moment highlighted in “The Miracle Worker” where, as a youngster, she learns to identify and spell the word water. This moment is often touted as the first moment Keller understood the world, but Keller used her own sign language that she created to communicate with her family members, something that many other deafblind people use to communicate. with their loved ones.
Here’s what Keller had to say about that “miracle” moment in her book “Story of My Life.”
“As the cool stream gushed with one hand, she spelled the word water in the other, slowly at first, then quickly. I stopped; all my attention fixed on the movements of her fingers. Suddenly, I felt a foggy awareness like something forgotten – a thrill of thinking of coming back; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “water-r “signified the wonderful something cool that flowed over my hand,” Helen wrote in her book “Story of My Life.”
Although Keller is deaf and blind (just like Sjunneson), there are specters of deafness and blindness. Not all deafblind people live in a dark and silent world.
Sjunneson said Keller described the vibrating sensation of a piano being played and that she knew those vibrations were sound.
“She heard no voices. But if she was lying next to a piano and someone was using the bass pedal, she describes what it was like to hear that sound. Yeah, so it’s not a lot of viewership. But that’s enough of an audition for her to know what the audition is like,” Sjunneson said.
- Helen communicated before the “miracle” moment at the water pump with her teacher and the “Miracle Worker”, Anne Sullivan.
Helen had a sign language system at home which she used to communicate with her family until she was about seven years old. Sjunneson said the idea that Keller was tormented by a world of dark silence is not accurate with Keller’s experience or her own experience.
“Helen Keller had signs at home. She was trying to communicate with the people around her long before anyone showed up to educate her. So the idea that she just passively existed in a distressed state is one of the biggest issues I have because as a deafblind person I don’t think that’s the experience we have,” Sjunneson said.
- Helen was an activist, feminist and vaudeville performer
“The Miracle Worker” focused on Keller’s childhood. The majority of the page and a half of text in the Alabama history textbook also focuses on the story told by the play. Here’s what the textbook has to say about Keller’s adult life:
“As she got older Helen studied English, History, Biology, Algebra, Geography, French, German, Greek and Latin at Radcliffe College. Anne Sullivan accompanied him. Helen graduated with honors in 1904. Helen did not spend all her time with books. She could also swim, dive, row a boat, ride a horse, knit, crochet, ride a bicycle for two, and play checkers, chess, and card games.
Helen gave lectures, wrote books and magazine articles, and spoke to state legislators to try to get help for the blind and deaf. Through his work, many people donated money to educate the blind and deaf. Helen also gave much of her own money to this work. She has spoken in over 25 countries, trying to bring new hope to blind and deaf people. Helen Keller died in 1968.
The textbook does not mention that she was the first deafblind person to earn a bachelor’s degree. Nor does he mention anything from his own writings about his experience of deafblindness.
Keller was also a co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the largest civil rights organizations in America.
Beginning in 1920, Keller worked as a vaudeville performer, accompanied by Sullivan, for five years. She presented a 20-minute show, where she told her life story and answered questions from the audience. Sullivan acted as an interpreter for her. They stopped the performances when Sullivan’s health began to decline.
Let’s talk eugenics
This subject should not be ignored, so we address it here with the help of Sjunneson.
Keller has been cited as a proponent of eugenics ideas that became popular in the early 20th century. Here’s what Keller wrote in response to reports of infanticide at the hands of doctors. This letter was published in The New Republic on December 18, 1915:
“Much of the discussion sparked by Dr. Haiselden when he allowed baby Bollinger to die revolves around a belief in the sanctity of life. If many who oppose the doctor’s course took the hard to analyze their idea of ”life”, I think they would find that it simply means breathing. Surely they must admit that such an existence is not worth it. These are the possibilities of happiness, of intelligence and power which give life its sanctity, and they are absent in the case of a poor, deformed, paralyzed and thoughtless creature.
Sjunneson strongly rejected eugenics in her book “Being Seen:”One Deafblind Woman’s Fight to End Ableism”. Reckon asked her what she thought of a deafblind woman supporting disabled infanticide. She said called Keller’s choice to support eugenics a “pretty unforgivable mistake”.
“She knew she had a voice and a platform. It’s not like she didn’t know that when she wrote for The New Republic. She knew people were listening to her and she made the decision to throw another type of disability under the bus. And it’s not really something that I can say, it was good,” she said.
“Did she live in a time when that was acceptable? Of course, I think people lied to him. I think people taught him things that weren’t true. But I also think she was a thinking human being and had the ability to make her own decisions. I think that’s still where I’m sitting with it – supporting eugenics is never acceptable.
Sjunneson said she hopes more people will ask about stories told about people with disabilities in the media.
“If you’ve only ever seen the miracle worker and you’re from Alabama; if you don’t ask about it, it’s up to you. To believe that this non-disabled person is right about the life of a disabled person is not asking the right questions,” she said. “You have to wonder who is telling the story and what is their angle.”
People who want to learn more about the experience of people with disabilities should start by listening to people with disabilities and reading their writings, Sjunneson said. She suggested those interested in learning more about Keller’s views read her book “Story of My Life.”
“I think hearing it is important. By letting William Gibson’s mythology be the only record we teach kids, we’re letting a man tell us what a woman’s life was like, and not just any man. , we are talking about a non-disabled man,” she said.