I first heard of Helen Keller in Primary Four when I was around eight years old. I can’t say I was awful impressed with her. I mean yes, of course it was good that she had overcome her naughty ways, no longer broke her toys in anger and very clever that she had learned to read and write despite being so severely disabled – even writing an autobiography of her life. But this was of course all only down to the perseverance of Anne Sullivan who patiently taught the imbecilic willful child, saving her from the life of institutionalization that she was so obviously destined for; turning her into a respectable citizen, despite her obvious shortcomings. This would all not have been possible without the kindness and charity of those around her who accepted her and her handicaps – even considering her sufficiently responsible to have a dog as a pet.
A few months later, I was given “What Katy Did”, a fictional account of a mischievous girl who disobeys her guardian’s instructions, has no patience and is always getting into scrapes, until one day her rebellious nature catches up with her when she falls from a swing she had been instructed not to go on, damaging her spine and leaving her bedridden. Sulky and miserable at her freedom being so cruelly removed, she is eventually shown the error of her ways and learns to accept her situation with cheerfulness and patience. The novel was written in the late 19th century and on reading it, I was instantly reminded of Keller – recalling that she had not been born disabled – and wondered what she had done to merit her being left Deaf and blind.
Many, many years later, I came across a remarkable American activist who shared the same name. A socialist, a feminist and a wobbly – this Helen Keller was kick ass – and as I read on, I realised that this revolutionary was the exact same Helen Keller that had been presented to me as a child as an object of pity. She had travelled extensively and had an excellent grasp world politics offering solidarity to socialists across the globe. She had worked with many of the other leading American activists of the early 20th Century, arguing their cases as they were imprisoned, speaking up for them at public meetings and writing letters of support.
She had come by socialism by reading Well’s “New World for Old” spelled out on her hand, and started importing German socialist texts which had been reprinted in Braille, together with having socialist periodicals imparted to her through her fingers. John Macy, the husband of Anne Sullivan, was blamed as the cause of her radicalisation by an establishment who could not comprehend a disabled woman gaining such a comprehensive grasp of socialist politics, while the socialist movement was accused of exploiting her for sympathy, yet Keller’s conversion to socialism was entirely her own responsibility. Already known for her autobiography and celebrated for her prior accomplishments, this conversion did not go down well, with the Brooklyn Eagle, which had formerly showered her with gushing praise, asserting that her “mistakes spring out of the manifest limitations of her development” to which she reacted angrily accusing the media of being always willing to assist prevent misery “…provided, that we do not attack the industrial tyranny which supports it and stops its ears and clouds its vision”.
Her disability was a major influence on her politics, much of her writings chastise capitalism for its lack of vision, and she bemoans the industrial blindness and social deafness that it engenders. She fought for the rights of the blind and the blind/Deaf, travelling internationally to promote the education of blind children who were frequently confined to institutions. She also introduced a feminist analysis into the causes of blindness. Many blind women of the time had become so through being infected with syphillis, often as a result of involvement in the sex industry and she railed against a system which forced women into poverty, destitution and prostitution then abandoned them to their suffering.
It is unfortunate that Keller never became involved with the Deaf community. She identified herself primary as a blind woman who could not hear. Unable to sign, she had little to do with increasingly marginalised section of Deaf workers. The same year that Keller was born, a conference was held in Milan, where Alexander Graeme Bell heavily promoted the Oralism method over signing, the preferred method of communication of Deaf people. On becoming aware of Keller’s disability, her family made contact with Bell, and his approach heavily influenced her education, particularly as she had residual speech. In Keller’s time Deaf workers were increasingly confined to manual roles as the education through Sign Language declined, in line with the Treaty of Milan, denying the means of communication to a generation of Deaf youth.
In my class at the time we learned of Keller was a Deaf girl who attended the nearby Windsor Unit for the Deaf, partly integrated into the school. None of the hearing pupils were ever taught to sign and at the time it was considered that Deaf integration into the mainstream community necessitated oral communication. The presentation of a Deaf woman as a recipient of charity and understanding to classmates who effortlessly communicated in the preferred manner must have been incredibly alienating. Learning of Keller’s intellect and determination together with the oppressive force of Oralism which alienated her from the Deaf community would have been a far greater lesson for all of us – both hearing and Deaf – than a fiction of rebellious girl who was tamed.
Keller was never tamed, and the world is a better place for it.
Helen Keller (1880 – 1968)
First published by the ISG on 27th April 2012 as part of their Women of the Left series.