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Helen Keller: What She Really Taught Us About People With Disabilities

When Helen Keller turned 17, she optimistically wrote that "the future looks bright and full of promise, and I shall carry with me through all my life the memory of a happy childhood." Indeed, her future was bright and full of promise. Even today, 125 years after her June 27th birth, and nearly 40 years after her 1968 death, she remains one of the world's most famous women. The young child who became deaf and blind at the age of 19 months went on to attend Boston's Perkins School for the Blind and graduate cum laude from Radcliffe College. She also performed in vaudeville and on the national lecture circuit, excelled as a lobbyist and fundraiser for the American Foundation for the Blind, travelled widely internationally, formed fast friendships, and believed strongly that all--including herself--had responsibility as citizens to battle against injustice and social inequalities.

Americans and others across the globe continue to be fascinated by the famous deaf-blind woman who died in 1968 at the age of 88. Yet it is hard to imagine her as anything but the innocent, inspirational seven-year-old taught by Anne Sullivan to fingerspell "water" at the famous Tuscumbia, Alabama water pump. During Keller's lifetime, as she unsuccessfully tried to make a living by writing, she grew frustrated that editors and the reading public wanted only to read of her disability (and primarily of her experience as a child with a disability). She painfully realized that much of her reading public could only behold her with pity and wonder.

Hindered by attitudes about disability that mired her in childhood regardless of her age, she struggled throughout her lifetime against the perception that her disability rendered her incapable of forming her own political opinions and of participating in public life. In one moment of frustration during 1913, the famous deaf-blind honours graduate of Radcliffe College, the scholar fluent in French, German, Greek and Latin, responded, "I have the advantage of a mind trained to think, and that is the difference between myself and most people, not my blindness and their sight." To those who pitied her, she responded to their hostile good intentions by saying, "I do not want their pity; I would not change places with one of them. I know what I am talking about."

Despite our continued fascination with Helen Keller, we still tend to behold her only with pity and wonder. By doing so, we do harm to her and other people with disabilities. She was a complex, sometimes contradictory, always intelligent woman who read widely in politics and fiction, treasured her dear friends and her dogs, thrived on international travel, embraced the sensual, and loved the sophisticated as well as hotdogs and scotch. She always struggled with her simultaneous disgust at the economic inequalities of capitalism and her dependence on the wealthy for economic support. Moving beyond pity and wonder to remember her in her full humanity is not throwing dirt at a historical saint; instead, it is an act of honour that she fought for during her own lifetime.

Whether and how we memorialize Keller matters a great deal--to her memory, but perhaps more importantly, to the lives of Americans with disabilities today. Her humanity did not begin at the pump in a symbolic baptism that enabled her to conquer her disability. She was not a superhero who accomplished everything through only a cheerful attitude. By continuing to remember her in these ways, we have created a culture in which pity and wonder are our primary responses to people with disabilities. Remembering her in these ways allows us to ignore the attitudes, social structures, and outright discrimination that frustrated her. Remembering her and other people with disabilities in these ways excuses us from facing contemporary employment discrimination against people with disabilities, social welfare policies that demand dependency and nursing homes rather than facilitate independent living, and the present judicial and legislative erosion of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.

Only by moving away from pity and wonder and towards full acceptance can our nation focus on the real issues of physical access, jobs, attitudes, and support for independent living. Only once we move beyond stereotypes can we realize the important and varied contributions disabled people make to our vibrant society. Recognizing Keller as the complex, intelligent and caring adult she was would truly be an appropriate memorial to her on her 125th birthday.

Ms. Nielsen is associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Her books include The Radical Lives of Helen Keller and Helen Keller: Selected Writings.

Reprinted from History News Network, October 17, 2005:

Photo: Helen Keller 1880 - 1968

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