Helen Keller and the Representation of Deafblind People

March 1, 2021 | Denise

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Helen Keller (1880-1968) was an American author, lecturer and activist. She spoke publicly in support of workers' rights, birth control, women's suffrage and people with disabilities. She was also:

  • a graduate of Radcliffe College at Harvard University
  • a member of the Socialist Party of America
  • and one of the founders of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Her political activities earned her a place on the FBI's list of Communists in 1949 and, in 1964, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Helen Keller was also deafblind, having lost her sight and hearing due to an illness in early childhood. Despite all of her accomplishments and qualifications, she struggled to be seen as a serious activist rather than a public spectacle or source of inspiration. 

Recent news stories about Helen Keller make clear that the prejudices and ableist assumptions Helen faced still exist today. With that in mind, I want to take this opportunity to look at some of the ways that deafblind people have been represented in popular culture and literature. I also want to compare these representations to how they represent themselves. 

 

Early Representations of Deafblind Women

Perhaps the most well-known pop culture representation of a deafblind person is The Miracle Worker. Originally a play by William Gibson, it was later adapted for television. The Miracle Worker tells the story of Anne Sullivan, who is credited with teaching Helen to read, write and speak.

Anne's success as a teacher is certainly remarkable. But the way that the story is told and the two women are represented is nonetheless troubling. The summary of Gibson's play describes Anne Sullivan's "incredibly moving struggle to tame the wild girl no one could reach." Similarly, the movie's summary states that Helen was "saved" by Anne. In doing so, Anne becomes a selfless hero and Helen's disabilities make her somehow less than human. 

Cover image of The miracle worker

The Miracle Worker

 

Helen Keller was not the only deafblind woman to gain international notoriety for her educational accomplishments. In fact, she wasn't the first. Laura Bridgman (1829-1889) is considered to be the first deafblind person in America to learn English. She attended the Perkins School for the Blind in the school's early days. Bridgman was personally instructed by the founder and director, Samuel Gridley Howe. Elisabeth Gitter wrote a book about Samuel Howe and Laura Bridgman, The Imprisoned Guest. Currently, this book is only available in our collection as a reference copy at Toronto Reference Library. It cannot be placed on hold or borrowed. 

What is visible

Other books about Laura Bridgman are available, including the fictionalized account of her life What is Visible by Kimberly Elkins.

Samuel Howe described Laura's life as being like the "darkness and silence of the tomb." Much like the discourse around Anne Sullivan's role in Helen Keller's life, Howe is seen as a saviour. He thought of Bridgman's education as a kind of rescue mission. Howe used Laura as a poster child for his teaching methods, publishing reports in educational journals and newspapers around the world.

Although Howe's publicity efforts did have the benefit of promoting education for deafblind people, they also turned Laura and the Perkins School into a tourist attraction. People from all over flocked to the school to watch Laura read and write. They would even purchase her autograph or a writing sample as a souvenir. Newspapers often remarked on her dainty, feminine appearance. It was believed she maintained a kind of purity due to her isolation from the world. Howe himself used Laura as an experiment in human behaviour and the nature versus nurture debate. He carefully controlled the information and people she had access to.

 

The Life and Legacy of Helen Keller

Helen Keller lived a remarkable life and there is no one better to tell her story than the woman herself. 

Cover image of The story of my life

The Story of My Life by Helen Keller

When Helen Keller's story is told by other people, her childhood and her education are almost always the focus. Helen's political activities are often left out, or are treated as just an epilogue to the more inspirational story of her early years. 

Cover image of The radical lives of Helen Keller

The Radical lives of Helen Keller by Kim E. Nielsen

It is particularly rare to find discussions of her more conservative and oftentimes controversial beliefs. Some of these beliefs alienated her from other members of disability communities. Political biographer Kim E. Nielsen puts together a more complete picture of Keller's complicated politics. Nielsen's book includes her work with Alexander Graham Bell. Bell strongly advocated that Deaf and hard of hearing people learn lip-reading and speaking rather than sign language.

 

Anne Sullivan Macy

Anne Sullivan Macy experienced vision loss due to a childhood illness and spent most of her early years in an almshouse. At age 14, she lobbied for and received admission to the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston, Massachusetts. After graduation, she was hired by the Keller family to instruct their young daughter. It was at her urging that Helen's parents agreed to enroll Helen in formal education, first at the Perkins School and then elsewhere.

Cover image of Beyond the miracle worker : the remarkable life of Anne Sullivan Macy and her extraordinary friendship with Helen Keller

Beyond the Miracle Worker: The Remarkable Life of Anne Sullivan Macy and Her Extraordinary Friendship with Helen Keller by Kim E. Nielsen 

There is no doubt that Anne was an important figure in Helen's life, but calling her a miracle worker is more complicated than just simple praise.  I've already discussed one such issue but I want to add that it also defines Anne's life exclusively in relation to Helen's. She was a person in her own right, with her own story. Kim E. Nielsen, who brought a more nuanced perspective to Helen Keller's biography, also does so for Anne.

 

In Their Own Words

The disability rights movement often uses the phrase "nothing about us, without us". This statement is part of the argument that disabled people must be included in the creation of any law or policy that affects them. The same is true in the world of popular culture and literature. For this reason, this next section highlights recently published books written by deafblind authors.

Though Toronto Public Library uses people-first language ("people with disabilities") when writing about disability, in this post, I have deferred to the authors' preference for identity-first language ("disabled people").

Haben: The Deafblind Woman who Conquered Harvard Law by Haben Girma

Haben Girma, born in California to Eritrean refugee parents, is the first deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School. She works as a disability rights advocate, fighting to break down the many barriers that disabled people face. She believes that "disability is an opportunity for innovation". Haben has met with representatives from major corporations like Apple and Microsoft to ensure that assistive technology is built into their products. Her 2019 memoir documents the many adventures of her life so far, from building schools in the Saharan desert and defending fellow disabled people in the courtroom to developing new assistive devices and learning to surf.

 

Cover image of Disability visibility : first-person stories from the twenty-first century

Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century by Alice Wong (editor)

Published in 2020, in time for the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Disability Visibility is a collection of "first-person writing on the joys and challenges of the modern disability experience." It is edited by Alice Wong, a prominent disability advocate who was appointed to the National Council of Disability by President Obama. Alice Wong is the founder of the Disability Visibility Project and is involved with #CripTheVote and DisabledWriters.com. This anthology features a truly diverse collection of writing with a wide variety of writing styles, life experiences and types of disabilities. It includes work by Haben Girma, as well as Elsa Sjunneson, a deafblind Hugo and Nebula nominated author of speculative fiction and non-fiction.

 

Deafblind Information and Resources

 

For information about Toronto Public Library's Accessibility Services, please visit our website or contact us at (416)393-7099. TTY users can also use the TTY Relay Service (711).

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