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Why the Helen Keller story in history books is harmful to people with disabilities

Every year, the town of Tuscumbia, Alabama, puts on a production of the “The Miracle Worker” at Helen Keller’s birthplace, Ivy Green. The play was also adapted to a film of the same title.

But “The Miracle Worker” (written by William Gibson) is just a dramatization of Keller’s real experience as a deafblind child, said Elsa Sjunneson, a historian, writer and disability rights activist.

A similar story is commonly found in history textbooks. For example, one history text used in Alabama fourth grade classrooms starting in 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 became very ill. Helen recovered from her illness, but she could not see or hear. Because she could not hear, she did not learn to talk. She lived in a world of silent darkness.”

It continues: “Helen’s family did not know how to teach her. She became difficult to handle. If she did not like something, she would kick, bite and scratch.”

Painting Helen’s blindness and deafness as making her terrifying and difficult to handle was not only a false picture of Keller’s young life, it portrays disability as scary and disturbing, Sjunneson said.

Despite her portrayal in “The Miracle Worker” and textbooks, Sjunneson recently spoke with Reckon about parts of Keller’s that are less widely known and defy ableist tropes.

Helen had some concept of light and sound

“The Miracle Worker” casts Keller as a confused, difficult and often angry child who had no ability to understand the world around her. She is often violent and wild, but the reality of young Helen’s life couldn’t be farther from the truth, Sjunneson said.

As an adult, Keller wrote in vivid detail about her experience as a blind and deaf child, including the so-called miracle moment highlighted in “The Miracle Worker” where young she learns to identify and spell the word water. This moment is often cast as the first moment Keller understands the world, but Keller used her own sign language she created to communicate with her family members, something many other deafblind 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 over one hand, she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still; my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–-a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand,” Helen wrote in her book “Story of My Life.”

Although Keller was deaf and blind (and so is Sjunneson), there are spectrums of deafness and blindness. Not every deafblind person lives in a dark, silent world.

Sjunneson said Keller described feeling the vibration of a piano being played and that she knew those vibrations were sounds.

“She couldn’t hear voices. But if she were to lay next to a piano and someone were to use the bass pedal, she describes what it was like to hear that sound. Yeah, so it’s not a lot of hearing. But it’s enough hearing that she was able to know what hearing felt 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 system of home sign language 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 isn’t accurate to Keller’s experience or her own experience.

“Helen Keller had home signs. She was trying to communicate with the people around her long before anybody showed up to educate her. So the idea that she was just passively existing in a state of distress is one of the biggest issues that I have, because as a deafblind person, I don’t feel that that’s the experience that 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 grew older, Helen studied English, history, biology, algebra, geography, French, German, Greek and Latin at Radcliffe College. Anne Sullivan went with her. Helen graduated with honors in 1904. Helen did not spend all of 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 talks, wrote books and magazine articles, and spoke to state legislators to try to get help for the blind and deaf. Because of her work, many people gave money to educate blind and deaf people. Helen also gave much of her own money to this work. She spoke in more than 25 countries, trying to bring new hope to people who were blind and deaf. Helen Keller died in 1968.”

The textbook doesn’t mention that she was the first person with deafblindness to earn a bachelor’s degree. It also doesn’t mention anything about her own writing about her experience of deafblindness.

Keller also was a co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the largest civil rights advocacy organizations in America.

Starting in 1920, Keller worked as a vaudeville performer, accompanied by Sullivan, for five years. She performed 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 about eugenics

This topic shouldn’t be ignored, so we’re addressing it here with Sjunneson’s help.

Keller has been quoted as a supporter of the eugenics ideas that became popular during the early 20th century. Here’s what Keller wrote in a response to reports of infanticide at the hands of doctors. This letter was published in The New Republic on Dec. 18, 1915:

“Much of the discussion aroused by Dr. Haiselden when he permitted the Bollinger baby to die centers around a belief in the sacredness of life. If many of those that object to the physician’s course would take the trouble to analyze their idea of ‘life,’ I think they would find that it means just to breathe. Surely they must admit that such an existence is not worthwhile. It is the possibilities of happiness, intelligence and power that give life its sanctity, and they are absent in the case of a poor, misshapen, paralyzed, unthinking creature.”

Sjunneson strongly rejected eugenics in her book “Being Seen: “One Deafblind Woman’s Fight to End Ableism.” Reckon asked her how she feels about a deafblind women supporting the infanticide of disabled people. She referred to Keller’s choice to support eugenics as a “mistake that was pretty unforgivable.”

“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 that people listened to her, and she made a decision to throw a different type of disability under the bus. And that’s not really something that I can say was okay,” she said.

“Did she live in a time when that was acceptable? Sure, I do think that people lied to her. I think people taught her things that weren’t true. But I also think that she was a thinking human being and she had the ability to make her own decisions. I think that’s still where I’m sitting with it--supporting eugenics is never okay.”

Sjunneson said she hopes more people are asking questions about the stories being told about disabled people in media.

“If you have only ever seen the miracle worker, and you are from Alabama; if you’re not asking questions about that, that’s on you. Trusting that this non disabled person is right about a disabled person’s life isn’t asking the right questions,” she said. “You must ask who’s telling the story and what their angle is.”

People who want to learn more about the disabled experience should start by listening to disabled people and reading their writing, Sjunneson said. She suggested people interested to learn more about Keller’s opinions read her book “Story of My Life.”

“I do think that hearing from her is important. By letting the mythology of William Gibson be the only record that we teach kids, we’re letting a man tell us what a woman’s life was like, and not just any man, we’re talking about a non disabled man,” she said.

Anna Beahm

Anna Beahm | abeahm@reckonmedia.com

I report on the intersection of religion and sexuality in America. Follow me on Twitter @_AnnaBeahm

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