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.