Overall, Helen Keller is a disability ambassador who overcame her limits with support and personal challenges. She is evidence of how strong desire and thirst for knowledge can persevere even when she was beyond the language acquisition boundary that is the norm in learning and applying language.
Do not get me wrong. Helen Keller was an admirable person and her legacy of knowledge and resources is carried through the HKC.
Representative of a dark time? What did I mean by that?
“Blindness cuts you off from things. Deafness cuts you off from people.” This is quoted by Helen Keller.
I do not know what it is like to be constantly blind so I am not going to presume that being blind is the better of being deaf. We all adjust one way or another to what we get in life.
So why is this quote relevant and to the point about representing a darker time?
Helen Keller was born in 1880 and contracted some form of disease that left her deaf and blind at the age of 19 months. When her mother found out about Laura Bridgman, she endeavored to find a teacher for Helen from Alexander Graham Bell (AGB), then Perkins Institute of the Blind. AGB, while a proponent of oralism, was a fluent signer.
Anne Sullivan came into her life and taught her the well known connecting word W-A-T-E-R, through sign language.
Reading into her biography, I note one thing that is constant; blind. Other than a few commentaries about Helen knowing sign language, not one single thing had to do with deaf, deafness, or sign language in general.
Take into consideration the time period which Helen Keller lived in. In our Deaf History (which is March 15-April 15), we have a ‘Dark Age’, where the employment of deaf people decreased or transitioned from academic, prolific arts or elite positions to industrial positions. The quality of education via sign language (the 1960’s was when sign language was named ASL) so richly enjoyed for 70 something years provided through Laurent Clerc and Thomas Gallaudet and spread forward in the nation became substandard to the point where deaf children were expected to fail at everything in life, even in employment all because of lack of access to language.
The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, they must be felt with the heart. ~Helen Keller
Helen had to choose between her identities; be deaf or be blind. According to her journal written 1937-38, she found advocating for both communities to be far complex and decided to choose the blind community. Being a lifelong friend of AGB, her decision to deviate from the deaf community shows that even in the times of eugenics and monolingual beliefs, she was willing to abandon one half of her identity to fit into the world deemed ‘normal’. Being blind allowed people to continue to speak; whereas, being deaf the ability to speak would vary wildly.
It is incredulous, yet not surprising, that this would happen, coming from a woman whose life began with the foundation of rudimentary sign language, her main means of communication before accessing language with Anne Sullivan and continuing to do so for the rest of her life. Someone willingly abandon a part of her self and brand that identity as the greater of the two evils.
I always wondered if Helen ever fell in love, wanted to marry, have children or help establish an association for the deaf-blind. Was she ever allowed to do so? How did Helen communicate with AGB’s wife, Mabel, who did not sign most of the time? I wonder about the real Helen Keller behind all the gloss.
To Be Whole
Currently I am an ASL teacher at a local college and at an high school. I received my Masters in Sign Language Education from Gallaudet University. At home, I am an activist within the community, Northwest Indiana. My son is in first grade and my daughter goes to E.C.L.I.P.S.E. ASL Preschool. Change begins with you and change is effective with a team.