Telling Helen Keller’s story can teach us about today’s political culture

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, October 29, 2021

“Becoming Helen Keller” is a new PBS “American Experience” episode available for streaming.

It comes with a warning: “This program includes historical descriptions of people with disabilities that many now consider offensive. Viewer discretion is advised.” My first thought was “who would be offended by learning more about Helen Keller’s heroic life?” While viewing I realized the extent to which struggles over political symbolism, issue framing and specific interest agendas has permeated present day society.

The documentary, marking the 100th anniversary of the founding of the National Federation for the Blind and during National Disability Employment Awareness Month, examines the legacy of Helen Keller (1880-1968), who was deaf and blind since 19 months old. The documentary explores how she used her celebrity and wit to advocate for social justice, particularly for women, workers, people with disabilities and people living in poverty.

The documentary begins by the showing the dedication of a 600-pound statue of 7-year-old Helen Keller next to a replica of a water pump where she recognized the connection between language and the world, spelling w-a-t-e-r in her teacher’s hand and saying wa-wa. It captures perhaps the most famous “lights went on” moment in human history. The statue is located in a privileged position in the U.S. Capitol right inside the Visitor Center. It was presented by the state of Alabama on Oct. 7, 2009.

The moment captured in the statue is, of course, depicted in “The Miracle Worker,” a film that received numerous awards back in 1962. The play on which the movie is based, still performed in high schools across America, is based on the first four chapters — the early years — of her 23-chapter autobiography, “The Story of My Life.” Too bad there has not been a sequel.

So far, so good — but not so fast.

Immediately the documentary undercuts any admiration for Keller’s accomplishments, or gratitude to Alabama for publicly reminding us of her achievements. The documentary is a parade of critics using words like “a media creation,” “a story that is too good to be true,” “the saintly figure,” “Helen is reduced to a water pump,” and “her adult life is erased and all that we are left with is wa-wa.”

The PBS documentary goes on to recount Keller’s significant experience of meeting Alexander Graham Bell, who it turns out is a controversial figure in deaf history, being accused of plagiarism because a poem in her mind was similar to that of another poet’s, going to college, writing at least 12 books, learning several languages and becoming an international advocate for the disabled, civil rights, the labor movement, birth control and supporter of Eugene V. Debs, the 1912 socialist candidate for president.

Toward the end, it proclaims: “Her legacy would be overshaded — she would live on as the girl at the water pump.”

Two days after the PBS premiere, on Oct. 21, The New York Times published an essay that more succinctly captures the theme of the PBS documentary titled “Helen Keller and the Problem of ‘Inspiration Porn’” by Leona Godin, a performer, educator and author about blindness.

Godin writes that she came “to see Keller’s mainstream image and story as a textbook example of “inspiration porn,” a term I had not heard, but elsewhere is defined as “objectifying one group of people for the benefit of another.” In this case, Godin writes “disabled people’s lives are flattened into saccharine narratives about overcoming adversity, usually designed to make nondisabled people feel uplifted and grateful.”

A light bulb went on in my head: Helen Keller is being reinterpreted, reimagined, repurposed for the 21st century’s concern with “diversity and inclusion.” Back in 1962, Keller was a story of a human striving to overcome the limitations with which she was born. Somehow, in 2021, apparently disability scholars and advocates see her legacy as limiting people living with disabilities today.

Godin and the PBS documentary ask many important questions about disabilities, but they paint a caricature of Keller at the water pump that smacks of modern “outrage politics,” which inflates a valid, but often secondary, concern without suggesting alternative solutions. Godin’s claim that “our mainstream conversations have stagnated” may be true, but she offers no evidence that Keller is the cause nor alternative corrective actions.

Two films more recent than “The Miracle Worker,” “Children of a Lesser God” (1986) and “Mr. Holland’s Opus” (1995), portray deaf lives by illustrating lessons that all people can learn about how to more completely interact with and understand people with disabilities. We can all learn to recognize people with disabilities as individuals, interact directly despite difference in ability and ensure that people are engaged in decisions affecting their lives. Granted, these films don’t have the place of “The Miracle Worker” in the American mind.

Abandoning the “Helen at the water pump” image does nothing to improve the lives of people with disabilities today. Producing a different documentary completing the story of Keller’s life, or relating her education to present-day education of people who are deaf and blind, would increase the public understanding of such disabilities.

So, which would you choose for a statue of Helen Keller in the U.S. Capitol: Helen at the water pump or Helen as a distinguished elderly woman?

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at Webberd@missouri.edu.

Why so many ‘Help Wanted’ signs? Labor market is still trying to sort it out

David Webber, October 23, 2021

Columbia Mall CarWash manager Charlie King was the first to open my eyes this past June to how a labor shortage in Columbia and across America was going to affect my life.

The Mall CarWash has closed on Wednesdays and Sundays since last April because King could not hire enough suitable workers. Not only are applications down, but several hires quit the first day because drying cars all day requires physical stamina not everyone has.

There are “help wanted” signs everywhere. At the Columbia Mall alone, Rusty Strodtman, senior general manager, says that at least 90 of the 100 stores located there are hiring and estimates there are more than 250 openings.

Labor shortages are affecting everyday life. Several fast-food restaurants have become “not-so-fast” with reduced hours and closed dining areas. Some casual and upscale restaurants have reduced their menu options and changed their hours. Getting an oil change takes longer, as can getting eyeglasses and even a haircut. There are more empty shelves and less choice as auto manufacturers, appliance manufacturers and restaurants cut their product lines. In short, consumer choice and service have declined.

While many of these changes may be considered inconveniences, driver shortages for school and city buses — and over-the-road truck drivers — result in more than just inconveniences.

Last week, OATS Transit, a nonprofit organization providing transportation to seniors and disabled reported it is short about 145 drivers statewide, out of about 600, forcing the cancellation of “nonessential” trips. 

Likewise, the Missouri Board of Education has temporarily reduced qualifications for substitute teachers because of a shortage of qualified applicants.

A labor shortage is tough on workers, too. Whether in health care or car washing, doing the job of an unhired co-worker adds fatigue, stress and frustration — and a little resentment mixed with customer irritation. At the Mall CarWash, King says he tells his workers “don’t look at the line of cars, just focus on the vehicle in front of you,” but he knows the natural response is for workers to pick up the pace.

Something is going on in Columbia’s labor market, but as the Buffalo Springfield sang in “For What It is Worth” in the late 1960s, “what it is, ain’t exactly clear.” 

The more I look at economic data and talk with local managers, the more I consider the unorthodox idea that maybe Columbia just has too many businesses and too much demand for workers. We are fortunate that Columbia usually has a prosperous economy, probably because of our education, health and insurance sectors. Our August 2021 unemployment rate is 2.4%, lower than Missouri’s 4% or the national 5.2%. Economists used to set the standard of an unemployment rate of 4% as “full employment.”

Columbia had 2,359 unemployed people in August. The number of openings on job finder sites seems to be at least 4,000 and maybe as high as 6,000. The central region of Missouri, which includes 19 mid-Missouri counties, has an estimate of 14,658 openings.

Official estimates of “unemployed” are certainly low and not true reflections of society, because once people become frustrated, lose hope and quit looking for a job, they are no longer classified as looking for work. Therefore, they are considered to no longer be part of the civilian labor force. The Boone Country August Civilian Labor Force was 96,961. Compared to the 2014-2018 average of 97,757 workers, there is a decline of about 800 workers who may have left the labor force.

A better indicator, and one used by most countries, is the labor force participation rate, which refers to the number of people available for work as a percentage of the total population. Last month, it was 67.41% in Boone County, 63.3% for Missouri, and 61.7% for the nation. The historical highest rate for both Missouri and the U.S. is slightly more than 70. The point is that Boone County’s labor force participation rate of 67.1 is rather high — people are engaged in the economy despite the frequent opinion that workers, especially younger one or working mothers, have stopped working. For comparison, Missouri’s lowest labor force participation rate was 59.0 in June 2020, because of the pandemic.

Columbia is not alone. Nationally, there are 8.4 million unemployed but 10 million job openings. To be sure, some workers have made decisions to retire, to reduce work hours or to take care of their children and families rather than work, while others are concerned about COVID-19. The labor shortage is not only in entry-level positions but has affected law firms, education, health care and the hospitality industry. 

Strodtman said he believes that the current labor shortage is only slightly related to COVID-19 concerns. He thinks the end of the supplemental federal unemployment benefits may slow the hiring process, but that people have changed their employment goals and expectations. He suspects that online employment and the working from home option are important reasons for all the “Help Wanted” signs.

If traditional economics is right, a 2.4% unemployment rate should result in increased wages pulling workers back into the economy, and consumer service should improve. If, on the other hand, workers have work-life alternatives, the labor shortage will continue with longer lines and poorer service.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at Webberd@missouri.edu.

Important influences last a lifetime

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, October 15, 2021

While biking on the MKT Trail recently, I got to thinking “who have been the major influences on me?”

In addition to family members, relatives, books, Boy Scouts and events, I have been blessed with a variety of people who shaped how I turned out. There have been hundreds of former classmates, students, neighbors, politicians, friends, colleagues, runners and casual acquaintances, but at least a dozen affected me in a such a way that I would be different if I had never met them. I’ve been a lucky guy.

Here is the story of seven such people. I list them in chronological order because it would be nearly impossible to rank them.

1. A neighbor, Ed Shepeck, is the earliest long-term influence I remember. He worked as a landscaper/gardener for a wealthy landowner in town and had a large tree nursery in his own yard. He was a man of few words who taught me the names of trees and let me use his shovel and rake. He gave my brother and me yews for our confirmation. I remember my father explained to me once that I should call him Mr. Shepeck and I said, “but everybody else calls him “Ed.”

2. I never met John F. Kennedy but saw him up close when he visited my hometown while campaigning on a Saturday in the fall of 1960. My fourth-grade class at the Catholic school watched his inauguration during school. I attempted to memorize his inauguration address, and I did memorize his cabinet with the encouragement of a teacher. I was crushed when he was assassinated. It still troubles me that history could have been changed by the act of a single person with a gun. I have visited many historical sites, but I don’t expect to ever visit Daley Plaza. Throughout junior and senior high school, government and politics became my identity. No wonder I ended up a political science professor.

3. My second famous influence is someone I never met but saw in action: Roberto Clemente, No. 21 for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He is the first Latin American elected to the Hall of Fame and has a humanitarian award named after him. Clemente was an excellent batter, with a lifetime average of .313, but he is best known as an excellent outfielder with a rife right arm. He was the first non-English speaker that I paid attention to. I followed him closely in the sports pages and read about his difficulties finding a place to eat and live in some American cities. I remember when he received the MVP after the Pirates won the 1971 World Series. It was 50 years ago when he was interviewed on national television, saying “first I will speak Spanish, then I will speak English” and he proceeded to thank his family, friends and fans in Puerto Rico in their native tongue.

4. Supposedly, I was not much of a student before college, in part because I had so many interesting distractions at home and in the news. I do remember paying more attention to my eighth-grade teacher, Sister Mary Annrita, who seemed to follow sports and politics as well as spelling and geography. I am sure other teachers tried to make me into a good student, but she is the first one I tried hard to satisfy.

5. Looking back, I was fortunate to have a small group of eighth-grade classmates, about three girls and three boys, who helped me bridge the transition from Catholic grade school to public junior high, a major hurdle for many kids in my town. To the best of my recollection, they didn’t smoke cigarettes, or hang out too long at the hoagie shop. In 10th grade, some boys from “the other Catholic school,” including the mayor’s son, got in trouble for joyriding stolen cars. I lucked out and was never with them for such adventures, but I believe almost any kid could “run with the wrong crowd” and end up in trouble.

6. Frank, Kenny and Rube were three auto mechanics at a local new car dealership where I worked part time in high school (class of ’69), washing cars, changing oil and driving customers and parts around town. I loved it. The men, my father’s age, were of the “the Greatest Generation” who seemed pleased with their lives and their families. They hunted, fished, and gardened, and talked back at the radio that was usually blaring in the garage. Most discussions of Vietnam would turn to their World War II experiences, and I would mostly listen. They worked hard because their pay was based on the car problems they fixed. Their language and conversations were cleaner than the stereotype.

7. Tom, now a Cincinnati lawyer, inspired and taught me how to study my sophomore year in college. He demonstrated how to balance his classes, student activities, a girlfriend and sport buddies while keeping his values and identity. In the 1970s, there was always the daily drama among hippies, squares and dropouts, so his efforts were an achievement. It was not that I didn’t know how to study in college, it was that I was slow to fully commit to the idea. Tom’s example inspired me to embrace the role of “being a good student” while being involved in student politics.

I have at least five additional important influences who I will report on soon. Until then, be a good neighbor, classmate, teacher, or public official, because having a position of influence is a terrible thing to waste.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at Webberd@missouri.edu.

Columbia has a one-shot opportunity for the $25 million American Rescue Act funds

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, October 10, 2021

Even if there had not been COVID-19 in spring 2020, Columbia’s three major homeless service organizations — Loaves and Fishes, Room at the Inn and Turning Point — were at near capacity and deserving of better facilities to serve high-risk citizens.

It is remarkable what volunteers, with minimal resources and space, have accomplished over the past decade in providing a day center, at least one meal a day and a seasonal safe and warm nighttime shelter. In addition, there are many other organizations, such as Love Columbia, Harbor House, True North, Rainbow House, Welcome Home and many churches and private organizations, helping people in crisis stabilize their lives. Resources and leadership are what is needed to better serve Columbia’s needs.

The Columbia City Council will have an opportunity to allocate resources and provide leadership when it decides how to spend $25 million of the American Rescue Plan Act. While there are competing uses of the one-time funds, some portion should be used to establish a long-term center for homeless and low-income housing services.

Part of the challenge facing the City Council is conducting a quality discussion of homelessness and housing problems. There are so many government entities, church and nonprofit agencies and programs — each with their own directors and advocates — that it is impossible to see the full picture linking Columbia’s lack of affordable housing and mental health services with low economic opportunity due to poor job skills and personal problems.

CoMo needs a homeless/housing czar, a point person, with the responsibility to prepare a plan — a proposal — for City Council to consider for the development of the Opportunity Center, a term I attribute to Mayor Brian Treece, that serves as a hub. This center could also house job training programs, mental health services, low-income housing, transitional housing, along with a homeless shelter and a soup kitchen.

The mayor and the city manager should select this person from the leadership of current Columbia housing or health departments. I know they are busy, but they can call on their staff to assist them. Service providers and the Voluntary Action Center can provide programmatic information, but a central facility, the Opportunity Center, needs to be a responsibility of the city.

There has been discussion, for more than seven years that I know of, among social service providers and church organizations about how to address the needs of the homeless. For one reason or another, there has been little action.

The American Rescue Plan Act’s $25 million provides an opportunity for funding, but City Council’s decision process provides an opportunity for Columbia to better understand the homeless and housing problem and reconsider how the maze of local service providers is performing. Local governments across the country face the same low income-high rent problems we do.

“Homeless” is an ambiguous descriptor. “Unsheltered” is not much better. Officially, there are about 250 “unsheltered individuals” in the Columbia area. I speculate there are more than 2,000 people, with at least 200 being K-12 students, in CoMo who have “sub-par” sleeping arrangements.

People become “homeless” for a variety of reasons, such as medical, addiction, family instability, criminal history, disabilities and economic dislocation — but housing needs are usually a common trait.

People’s experiences are unique. I’ve met a 70ish-year-old woman who was “kicked out by her daughter” and had a carload of possessions but nothing to eat. I’ve met 50-year-old women who had been passing through Columbia when her car was rear-ended and totaled on an I-70 ramp and the other driver had no insurance, so the women became truly homeless and poor. There are certainly people addicted to alcohol and drugs on the streets. There are certainly people with mental states that I don’t understand that result in their lives being unstable and unpredictable. There are people working low-income jobs that can’t provide a suitable diet for themselves and their children. There are young people, middle-aged people, older people whose living situations drastically change, and who need shelter immediately and help finding stable housing.

Columbia needs a facility that can reliably provide shelter, food, daily support services, a helping hand, necessary information and a first step toward medical and addiction rehabilitation. The city should own the physical facilities, not the service providers, because the future is uncertain. The organizations might change, other social needs may arise. The city will be here forever.

The Opportunity Center, of which a homeless facility would be one part, should be in a welcoming location with security, located on a bus line with convenient parking for volunteers. The services provided by Turning Point, a day center, require laundry and shower equipment, computers, secure storage, information resources and transportation help. Imagine a facility as big as the ARC and the new Columbia Farmer’s Market pavilion.

The Opportunity Center would arrange with current nonprofits to provide a nighttime shelter for, say, 50 to 75 people, who would provide cots and blankets and hospital-quality laundry services, some hygiene facilities, secure storage, computers, a gathering space, counseling and medical space, plus reasonable supervision and monitoring. A different nonprofit, providing at least one meal a day to more than 100 people, seven days a week, would require a high-grade kitchen facility, like many churches have, and space.

In a separate and pressing decision, City Council should support homeless services for the upcoming winter, because church sites used in previous years are not available due to COVID-19 and its ramifications. However, the City Council should not rush into adopting a short-term solution for long-term problems.

The American Rescue Plan Act’s $25 million provides what may be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to better address our homeless/housing problems. Getting it right is a long-term benefit for the citizens of Columbia.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at Webberd@missouri.edu.