The Politics of Disability
In 1929, Helen Keller wrote:
“In most countries and most ages, the blind have been considered, with a few outstanding exceptions, as objects of charity, of pity, of contempt, even of cruelty.”
85 years later, in 2004, Kim Nielsen, an American historian, published a book on Helen Keller. In it, she poses a question to the reader:
“Why is disability political? People with disabilities have had and continue to have lower educational rates, lower incomes, and less social influence than those considered nondisabled. People with disabilities have been and frequently continue to be denied access to public space and participation in public events. Historically, laws have denied people with disabilities marriage, education, children, employment, citizenship, and the right to be in public. People with disabilities faced and do face discrimination as a social grouping… Because of the economic, legal, and cultural implications, how we define disability and designate who is labeled “disabled” has powerful results.”
Helen Keller, who lost both her vision and hearing as an infant, did not believe that her disabilities made her an incomplete person or citizen. She believed she could lead a productive and useful life, and through her many encounters with political dignitaries and speaking engagements to curious crowds, she challenged the social and political norms of her time to raise awareness to the conditions faced by disabled people. Today, people living with disabilities still combat political, social, and personal assaults, however, because of Helen Keller, both the political and social landscapes of disability have been forever changed.
What is Blindness?
An exercise from Helen Keller…
“What is blindness? Close your eyes for a moment. The room you are sitting in, the faces of your loved ones, the books that have been your friends, the games that have delighted you disappear – they all but cease to exist. Go to the window, keeping your eyes shut. God’ world – the splendor of the sky and sun and moon, almost the charm of human life – has vanished.”
“When blindness seizes a man [or woman] in the midst of an active life, he has to face a greater misfortune than the child born blind or deprived of sight in the first years of life. Even if kindness and sympathy surround him, if his family is able to support him and care for him, he nevertheless feels himself a burden. He finds himself in the state of a helpless child, but with the heart and mind, the desires, instincts, and ambitions of a man. Ignorant of what blind men can do and have done, he looks about him for work, but he looks in vain. Blindness bars every common way to usefulness and independence. Almost every industry, the very machinery of society, the school, the workshop, the factory are all constructed and regulated on the supposition that everyone can see. In the whirl and buzz of a lighted world the blind man, bewildered and helpless, sits down in despair, and resigns himself with bitter patience to a life of inactivity and dependence.”
“The hardest thing we [as blind people] have to bear is that we cannot go about the simplest matters of life alone. With all our hearts we desire to be strong, free, and useful.”
Who was Helen Keller?
Though Keller is a widely recognized icon, most people only know the story of the young Helen Keller who, despite being deaf and blind, learned to speak through the guidance of her beloved teacher, Anne Sullivan. What many don’t know is that Keller grew up to be one of the most influential unofficial ambassadors to the Unites States, created political change in the United States, spoke out strongly against racism, poverty, industrialization, and war, and was an active champion of the suffrage movement. She was a highly intelligent, passionate and determined woman whose global humanitarian outlook preceded her time. Her unyielding belief in optimism and service to others gave her the stamina to be an inspiration to many – from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to veterans disabled by World Wars I and II to Alexander Graham Bell to Japanese survivors of the atomic bombs – throughout her entire life. Keller’s many published works reveal her wit, her intelligence, her brilliant mastery of the written word, and most of all, her humanness. “She liked scotch, not tea.”
Helen Keller was born on June 27, 1880 in Tuscumbia, a little town in northern Alabama. At the age of 19 months, illness left her blind and deaf:
“When she was nineteen months old, she developed what the family doctor called ‘brain fever.’ The disease might have been scarlet fever or meningitis, an inflammation of the brain and spinal cord. Whatever it might have been, there were no medicines available at the time to treat it. After a few days, the terrible fever left her and she fell into a deep sleep. Once she awakened, it did not take her mother long to realize that her daughter could not hear or see. Helen would live in silence and darkness for the rest of her life.”
For the next five years, Keller’s life was challenging. Her parents attempted to communicate with her but failed, and Keller was obstinate and would often lash out. It wasn’t until 1886 that Keller started down a path to an education that would ultimately unleash her tremendous power of communication. It was in 1886 that Keller met Alexander Graham Bell, who opened up a new world of possibility:
“Responding to a letter from Helen’s mother, Kate, Bell, already famous as an inventor of the telephone and as an educator of deaf people, met with Helen, her mother, and her father Captain Arthur H. Keller. He forwarded them to Boston’s Perkins School for the Blind… But Bell remained, in Keller’s characterization, ‘a wise, affectionate, and understanding friend’ until the end of his life. She vacationed with the Bell family and considered him a father figure. He always, she said, ‘considered me a capable human being, and not some sort of pitiable human ghost groping its way through the world.’”
If Bell was the first truly inspirational figure in Keller’s life, then Anne Sullivan was surely the second:
“The most important day I remember in all my life is the one on which my teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, came to me. I am filled with wonder when I consider the immeasurable contrasts between the two lives which it connects. It was the third of March, 1887, three months before I was seven years old.”
Anne Sullivan also struggled with her eyesight throughout her entire life. Orphaned by her parents, poor Irish immigrants, at age 10, Anne Sullivan made her way to Perkins by begging touring philanthropists to aid her. Once she got there, she became one of Perkins’ star pupils, and so it was she whom the school’s president chose to go teach the young deaf-blind girl from Alabama.
As Keller illuminates in her earliest autobiography, The Story of My Life (1990), Sullivan turned out to be an absolutely remarkable teacher, not only in her instruction, but in her compassion and dedication to her pupil. Keller attributes much of the success of her steady transition from muteness to speech to Sullivan, who guided her from the very basic comprehension of words and objects, to more complex thoughts and ideas, and ultimately to speech:
“...the more I handled things and learned their names and uses, the more joyous and confident grew my sense of kinship with the rest of the world.”
“Miss Sullivan touched my forehead and spelled with decided emphasis, ‘Think.’ In a flash I knew that the word was the name of the process that was going on in my head. This was my first conscious perception of an abstract idea.”
“It was in the Spring of 1890 that I learned to speak. The impulse to utter audible sounds had always been strong within me...This feeling began to agitate me with a vexing, forward-reaching sense of a lack that should be filled. My thoughts would often rise up and beat like birds against the wind; and I persisted in using my lips and voice.”
Once Keller was exposed to education, she thirsted for it. She was determined to go to college, and was accepted to Radcliffe, the prestigious female counterpart to Harvard. When she graduated with honors in 1904, she became the most well-educated blind-deaf person in the world.
Of the many reasons for her love of education, Keller believed tolerance to be its greatest gift:
“The highest result of education is tolerance. Long ago men fought and died for their faith; but it took ages to teach them the other kind of courage, -the courage to recognize the faiths of their brethren and their rights of conscience. Tolerance is the first principle of community; it is the spirit which conserves the best that all men think. No loss by flood and lightning, no destruction of cities and temples by the hostile forces of nature, has deprived man of so many noble lives and impulses as those which his intolerance has destroyed.”
Keller imbued her life and her actions with the spirit of tolerance, and her speeches and writings carried forth the same message. However, despite Keller’s impressive college education, she struggled to earn a steady income, as was quite common for women at the time. Ultimately, the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), to which Keller had been dedicated for years, gave her a permanent position as a fundraiser and advocate. However, she was also able to maintain a living wage thanks to a yearly stipend from multimillionaire Andrew Carnegie, who sought to put his riches to good use partially by supporting “outstanding Americans,” such as Helen Keller.
In November of 1921, Keller got news of her mother’s death. It was the first of several tragedies to follow, the most devastating of which was Anne Sullivan’s death in 1936. Keller was able to reinvigorate herself after these events for two main reasons: her faith and optimism, and her deep desire to be a useful, active participant in the world, in her global community.
Faith and Optimism
At the age of 16, Helen Keller began to study the doctrines of Emmanuel Swedenborg, whose mission, she states, was “to teach people to listen to the inward voice.” The most important lesson Keller took away from Swedenborg’s teachings was to believe, steadfastly, in the spirit and power of love. This belief gave Keller a means to keep her passion for social justice burning brightly; it also gave her a strong sense of purpose. Keller wrote a book about her spiritual and philosophical convictions, in which she explains her relationship to Swedenborgianism:
“If the seeing need hearty, living faith to meet their responsibilities and their trials, imagine how much more the sightless need it. The blind have a strong friend in Swedenborg’s teachings, for they encourage our power to work, to overcome difficulties, and to live the life of the spirit. Swedenborg teaches us that love makes us free, and I can bear witness to its power of lifting us out of the isolation to which we seem condemned. When the idea of an active, all-controlling love lays hold of us, we become masters, creators of good, helpers of our kind.”
Keller’s college thesis was entitled “Optimism,” and further explicates her belief in the power of positive thought. However, her hopeful disposition was not based in naiveté. In “Optimism” she explains:
“I know what evil is…. For the very reason that I have come into contact with it, I am more truly an optimist. I can say with conviction that the struggle which evil necessitates is one of the greatest blessings. It makes us strong, patient, helpful men and women. It lets us into the soul of things and teaches us that although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it. My optimism, then, does not rest on the absence of evil, but on a glad belief in the preponderance of good and a willing effort always to cooperate with the good, that it may prevail.”
Traveling the world impacting international relations and advocating for progressive domestic sociopolitical change is not an easy task for any individual to take on, let alone a deaf-blind woman in the early twentieth century. However, Keller was determined to contribute to the betterment of the world, and rather than allow society to dictate her public authority, she did everything in her own power to assert herself. As it turned out, her visual and hearing impairments and her status as a woman did not hold her back; if anything they propelled her more strongly towards being a vocal advocate of compassion and justice.
Call to Action: Domestic Work
Much of Keller’s advocacy work began with issues related to the blind. In 1907, at the age of 27:
“Helen wrote an article for Ladies’ Home Journal that talked about opthalmia neonatorum, and infection that mothers with syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease, passed on to their infants, causing blindness. Preventing the infection was simple and cheap…. But treatment wasn’t required by American law, and it was not commonly offered. It was a courageous article for Helen to write; in those days, young women never spoke about sexually transmitted disease, let alone wrote about it. But Helen was outraged. She felt that mothers needed to demand this treatment for their babies. Blindness caused by this lack of treatment could be – and should be – wiped out.”
In 1929, Keller used her growing recognition to influence national policy:
“…Helen convinced Congress to support Braille books for the blind. Congress agreed to designate $75,000 to the cause. It wasn’t a lot of money, but it was a huge victory for Helen: This was the first time that the United States government had ever funded programs for the blind.”
Keller’s activism on behalf of the blind persuaded President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration to truly begin to address the politics of disability:
“[Helen] pushed the government further for more assistance to the blind. In 1935, President Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act, which offered unemployment insurance, retirement funds, and assistance for children and the disabled. Thanks to Helen’s hard work, the blind were included in the category of “disabled,” which meant they could apply for financial help.”
Call to Action: International Work
Early on in her career, Keller often questioned the efficacy of her work within the United States, wondering whether her message of optimism, compassion, and justice was having any sort of tangible impact. It did not take long, however, for her international efforts to be broadly and deeply appreciated. Much of her global work involved visiting those who faced some form of physical handicap, often related to injuries from war.
“Believing that her work for the blind was her special calling, she worked tirelessly – up to eighteen hours a day…. She traveled the globe six times over, visited dignitaries from every land, and passionately advocated for the sense-deprived. She spoke not only of their plight, but also of their promise and potential. Everywhere she went, whether to Europe, Asia, Australia, or Africa, hospitals and schools for the visually challenged began to spring up, sometimes in the very places where her feet passed.”
“World War II created thousands of war veterans who needed Helen’s particular brand of optimism and courage…. Helen clearly knew in her heart how the wounded men felt: Life wasn’t over, she told them. It was different but not over. And they could still find meaning and satisfaction in it. It was a message she lived herself. But Helen herself gained enormously from her visits. She called them the ‘crowning experience of my life.’”
Though Keller was able to be of great service during the first and second world wars, she absolutely hated war:
“Instead, she said, nations should fight for ‘liberty, justice, and an abundant life for all.’ In 1917, the United States prepared to enter World War I. Helen loudly opposed the move. She said it ‘means death and misery to millions of human beings.’”
In addition to speaking out against war, Keller:
“…spoke against capital punishment. She worked to end ignorance, racism, and poverty. In an era when it was politically incorrect to do so, she upheld the right of workers to strike and the right of women to vote. After touring Hiroshima and Nagasaki, meeting the survivors of the atomic bombs and touching their terrible wounds, she was among the first to campaign against the use of nuclear weapons.”
Regarding developments in the nuclear field, Keller stated:
“I am more determined than ever to do what lies in my power to fight against the demons of atomic warfare and for the constructive use of atomic energy.”
Keller received public praise for her work abroad from Americans and non-Americans alike. During her first visit to Japan in 1937, a leader of Japan’s National Association for the Blind wrote:
“Dr. Helen Keller’s visit to Japan has already exerted more influence than any other goodwill mission on American-Japanese relations. Furthermore, her visit is giving all the people of our nation a new recognition of the blind and other physically handicapped groups.”
Before she left Japan, the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines invited her to visit the country. He too was thrilled and impressed by her international presence:
“The United States could not have a better ambassador of good will than yourself, for your interest in and inspiration to people in all parts of the world transcend national barriers in a way that does honor to you and to your country.”
The Legacy of Helen Keller
“As an international figure she remained focused on advocacy for blind people but understood her efforts to be part of a larger political agenda of world peace, the international development of human rights criteria, and the sustenance of a world community.”
“In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson awarded Helen the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. A year later, she was elected to the Women’s Hall of Fame at the New York World’s Fair.”
A thorough investigation of Helen Keller’s life reveals that she was much more than a phenomenal girl who learned to speak despite being deaf and blind. Helen Keller was a luminary in every aspect of her life: from her personal sense of faith and worth, to her depth of intelligence, and her national and international influence.
“Life is a daring adventure or nothing at all.” –Helen Keller
Helen Keller, Midstream: My Later Life, (Garden City: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1929) 226.
Kim E. Nielsen, The Radical Lives of Helen Keller (New York: New York University Press, 2004) 9-10.
Helen Keller, Out of the Dark: Essays, Lectures, and Addresses on Physical and Social Vision (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1920) 142-143.
George Sullivan, Helen Keller: Her Life in Pictures (New York: Scholastic Nonfiction, 2007) 9.
Helen Keller, The Story of My Life (New York: Bantam Books, 1990) 14.
Leslie Garrett, Helen Keller: A Photographic Story of a Life (New York: DK Publishing Inc., 2004) 90.
Helen Keller, Light in My Darkness, Ed. Ray Silverman (West Chester: Chrysalis Books, 2000) 107.