Recently, I saw a post going around on Facebook about Helen Keller, and her dog. It was a joke how she mistook her dog for a cat. People found it funny. I did not. Was I offended by people finding it funny? No. There had always been jokes about everything; race, religion, ability, values, and so on. It was just inevitable. However, what I found offensive was the fact that our history disparaged Helen Keller. It hurt to see such an amazing woman to become butt of a joke. It really bothered me for so many reasons.
Our history books focused on a tiny slice of Helen Keller's life. We all knew her as a "Deaf-Blind" girl who was taught sign language by her teacher, Anne Sullivan, and it was a miracle that she learned sign language. She was shown as this fumbling idiot that suddenly learned how to communicate. Hallelujah! Here was this poor dumb girl that was able to learn.
Growing up, I was always embarrassed by Helen Keller. I hated being associated to her. Never mind, I was not blind, yet we both shared a similar "disability", our deafness. I despised it when my teacher showed a movie about Helen Keller in our classroom. I literally sunk into my chair when my classmates laughed uproariously when the movie showed Helen Keller as a dirty little girl, who hated being bathed, and made strange startling noises. I hated being associated with that mentality. Hearing kids saw me at that level, and it promoted the belief that Deaf people were not smart at all. It was a miracle that we learned how to sign, and to be able to further our learning experience. I felt subhuman to hearing students in that classroom. I hated the fact that my teacher had this need to point out my deafness even more. My deafness was already obvious with an interpreter in the classroom. There was no need to further emphasize that. My teacher thought she was doing me a favor by trying to educate us about Deafness, and to make me feel "fit in" among my peers.
It was an unfair perspective that I had based on my experience. I carried that with me for a long time. It was not until my graduate school years until I befriended Deaf-Blind people, and learned about their culture. I realized that I knew so little about Deaf-Blind. I was embarrassed by that lack of knowledge. With gaining friends, who were Deaf-Blind, and working with clients, who happened to be Deaf-Blind; I learned even more about Helen Keller, and I was ashamed of how I felt toward her. I was even more ashamed of how our curriculum, and textbooks mentioned so little about Helen Keller. This feeling was further emphasized by the reading I did of a book called Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Lowen.
I knew so little about Helen Keller. The chances were that people also did not know much about her either.
Helen Keller accomplished so much in her eighty-eight years of life. She learned how to communicate by signing, reading, and even speaking! She learned how to speak by resting her fingertips on Anne Sullivan's lips, and throat to pick up on the vibrations. How amazing was that? Helen Keller didn't stop there. She became the first Deaf-Blind person to have a college degree. From there, she became a very outspoken Socialist, and a quite radical Leftist (for an example, she supported birth control)! Helen Keller became a member of Industrialist Worker of the World, and fought for rights of laborers. Oh no, she didn't stop there. She continued on to become one of the founders for American Civil Liberties Union, which was about lobbying pretty much, and campaigned for Women's Suffrage. She became an advocate for people of disabilities. Helen Keller was very passionate about people, and traveled to give presentations all over the country. She participated in many functions. In 1965, she became one of twenty women elected to the Hall of Fame for Women in Alabama. During all of this, Helen Keller managed to publish 12 books, and several articles. She received many awards, and recognition for her work.
Helen Keller died at age of 88.
I tell you, Helen Keller is not a fumbling idiot, who made strange noises, and struggled to learn sign language as the history liked to portray her based on a tiny slice of her life. She is an amazing woman, who accomplished so much in her lifetime, and it is sad how our history choose to not paint her in this light. It is very sad. It is why I get so upset when I see Helen Keller becoming a butt of joke. I am not upset with the people, who have choose to post jokes about her, and I am rather upset with the lack of knowledge that we have about Helen Keller.
If we really know Helen Keller, for who she was, then we would tread lightly before turning her into the butt of a joke.