Helen Keller Mythbusting Day 2010

Today, 19 June, is ‘Helen Keller Day’ on Second Life, an event that is designed to get Second Life participants thinking about disability and accommodations, something I wholly support. A group of disability rights activists decided to take advantage of this opportunity to challenge the popular mythology that surrounds Helen Keller and to educate people about who Helen Keller was and what she did.

a banner for Helen Keller Mythbusting Day. A portrait of Helen Keller is in the middle. On the left, it reads 'Political activist. Radical thinker. Suffragist. Journalist. Pacifist. Socialist. Who was she?' On the right, 'Helen Keller Mythbusting Day 2010.' Banner created by Jha.

Welcome to Helen Keller Mythbusting Day 2010. Hold on to your hats, gentlefolk of all genders (and nongenders), because we are about to go on a wild ride. You can hit FWD/Forward for a roundup of posts submitted to the event (and if you write one, please drop a link in the FWD comments), and you can also follow the Twitter hashtag #HelenKeller.

Allow me to shuffle my notes for a moment. Ah yes, here we go. Helen Keller was a very special lady born in 1880 and rendered Deaf and blind as a result of a childhood illness who overcame adversity with the assistance of Anne Sullivan to…oh, wait, wrong notes.

Helen Keller was a badass radical socialist activist.

Does that surprise you? It wouldn’t shock me if it did, because there is a very specific narrative about Helen Keller that dominates history books and discussions of this remarkable woman. Keller was a radical activist and academic who, in her day, violated the rules of ‘polite behaviour’ established for women and people with disabilities and was notorious for her involvement with the socialist movement. Today, that history has been completely erased, leaving us with a safe and ‘inspirational’ story about overcoming disability. What most people know about Helen Keller is that she was Deaf, blind, and ‘courageous.’

Meanwhile, the story of Anne Sullivan, Keller’s lifelong companion, has been reduced to the ‘water scene,’ erasing her own disabilities along with her life history and achievements. Anne, too, defied some of the norms of her day, fighting for the right to an education as well as being an educator herself.

‘Helen Keller as icon’ has been weaponised against people with disabilities. The myths that have replaced the reality of Keller’s life are used to remind us that we should be more ‘brave’ and we should ‘overcome’ and we should ‘try harder.’ I suspect that Keller and the other women in her life, like Anne Sullivan and Polly Thompson, would be dismayed by the ‘tragedy to triumph’ narrative that dominates our perceptions of Keller today.

Not only is this a grave discredit to Helen Keller’s life and work, it’s another chapter in a very old and very tired story, one where people and experiences are erased because they don’t fit in with social attitudes and beliefs. Helen Keller’s real story, the one you don’t read about, defies the narrative of helplessness that people expect to encounter when they interact with stories about people with disabilities. The solution to that, thus far, has been to reduce Keller to her disabilities, blatantly ignoring her accomplishments and history. It is common to see nondisabled people ‘speaking for’ people with disabilities, telling their stories for them, and neatly erasing the parts that don’t fit with preconceived notions about disability.

Here are some things about Helen Keller you may not know:

  • She was a prolific author, producing much, much more than Story of My Life.
  • She was an anti-war activist who also agitated for women’s rights (including access to birth control and full suffrage), confronted class disparities, advocated for workers’ rights, and was active in disability rights activism.
  • She attended Radcliffe, and was the first Deaf-blind person to graduate with a bachelor’s degree.
  • She maintained lifelong correspondences with people like Mark Twain, Wilhelm Jerusalem, Charlie Chaplin, and Eugene Debs.
  • She made a film, Deliverance, and worked on the vaudeville stage along with Anne Sullivan.
  • She was a founding member of Helen Keller International and the American Civil Liberties Union.
  • She was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, and wrote for the Wobblies, specifically discussing disability issues and the closely entangled social and class inequalities for people with disabilities. Interested in reading some of her writing on socialism?
  • She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the highest honours available to civilians, by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Pretty far cry from the story you see on stage in The Miracle Worker, isn’t it? And quite a departure from the versions of Keller’s life that appear in a lot of history books, is it not? If you didn’t know this about Helen Keller before, would you say that it changed the way you think about her and her life story? Does it change the way that you think about disability?

In her day, Helen Keller was maligned in the media by people who suggested that her activism was the result of things like ‘limited development.’ We see the same attitude playing out today. People with disabilities are treated like pawns or people who are incapable of independent and rational thought.

People express shock and surprise that Deaf-blind folks use the Internet, that communication takes many forms beyond spoken language, that people with disabilities are every bit as interested in engaging with and exploring the world as our nondisabled counterparts. People with disabilities continue to be excluded from many spaces, using many of the same arguments that Keller resisted, and demonstrating that Keller’s work isn’t done.

Helen Keller’s life has been sanitised and mythologised right out of existence. She is not the first or the last person with a life to be neatly and highly effectively edited in this way. Many people are not only unaware of Helen Keller’s true story, but of the rich history behind the disability rights movement, and of the disability activism happening all over the world right now.

Remember: History books are written by the people in power.

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