September 21, 2023

Becoming Helen Keller: A Revolutionary Documentary for the Disability Community

Helen Keller and Ann Sullivan Poster

A statue of Helen Keller at a water pump, stands at the United States Capitol Visitor Center’s Emancipation Hall, in Washington, D.C; this figure encapsulates the forever image of Helen Keller as the deafblind child drawing the connection of water coming from the water pump. However, Helen Keller was so much more than what most have previously thought of this child at the water pump. Like all other disabled and non-disabled individuals alike, Helen Keller is a multidimensional human being.

Just like Helen at the water pump, many of us in the disability community have been put on a pedestal and praised for actions like saying, “wa-wa” while pumping water a water pump. When there are such low expectations set for those of us with disabilities, we are driven to prove society wrong, sending us on a mission of greatness.

Inspirational porn, even though not specifically said in the documentary, was a theme throughout this film. Inspirational porn perpetuates the idea of placing people with disabilities on a pedestal; if disabled people can do it, so can anyone else. is the perfect example of inspirational porn and how beloved it is by society. A disabled person, like Helen Keller, is exploited to inspire others and make them feel good while invalidating the disabled person as a whole person.

The pressure of not looking disabled was also great during the time of Helen Keller. In the film, there was a parallel drawn between President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Helen Keller. They both achieved greatness while having significant disabilities. But they shared another commonality due to their disabilities. We learned how Helen opted to wear prosthetic eyes to look acceptable in public. There was talk amongst our group of how this may have been due to the Ugly Laws being in place and disabled people were not to be seen in public. FDR tried to hide his disability too. Many people still do not know that he used a wheelchair for mobility. Stigma drives self-perception and this continues to hurt self-confidence and self-love amongst the disabled community today.

Exhaustion of advocating and teaching, even when just grocery shopping, was another common theme of our discussion. We had Rebecca Alexander, the voice of Helen, share her story about her experience with Usher’s Syndrome, and the deep exhaustion she has felt due to the burdens created by society’s ignorance. Another participant shared about their experience of not getting an acting position due to their disability and their frustration with the lack of representation in Hollywood. There was a discussion about how Rebecca should have been asked to audition for the role of Helen Keller in an upcoming film about her life but instead, a non-disabled person was cast for his role. Another participant shared how they had to leave an acting role because they could not use their cane onset. Then they were called back two years later to fulfill a disabled role but ended up originally being paid less than the non-disabled people playing a similar role because the others were fulfilling a stunt position and this individual was authentically disabled. This took time and energy but due to investing in advocacy, equal pay for this job came to fruition. From backhanded compliments and invasive questions to not being afforded accommodations for work, ignorance and ableism continue to be deeply ingrained into our society, making being disabled physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausting.

Though we have come a long way since Helen Keller’s life, like with the repeal of all Ugly Laws and the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, discrimination due to ableism and the fear of disability, continues today.

Education through documentaries like Becoming Helen Keller will hopefully begin to bridge the gaps previously and currently missing in school, showing that those of us with disabilities have value and complexity to our lives, just like everyone else. Thank you, American Masters, for telling more of Helen Keller’s story.

Stream  Becoming Helen Keller on PBS.

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