Hint: It’s probably not why you think.
For most people, the name Helen Keller conjures up images of a tyrannical, out-of-control young girl who is deaf, blind, and mute. She steals food from others’ plates and generally does what she wants, until the “miracle worker” Annie Sullivan comes along and teaches Helen to communicate with the outside world. For many, Helen is a 7-year-old girl at the water well in perpetuity. Once she learns language, she is transformed from a tyrannical child into a saintly, virginal, and virtuous girl, who, even though she lived to be 86, is still somehow a child.
Some people know that Keller was a prolific writer, traveler, and advocate for the blind. Fewer, outside of academia, know that she was an avowed Communist, supported women’s and worker’s rights, and had an ill-fated love affair. She enjoyed cocktails, cigars, and stylish hats.
Instead of being solely an advocate for the deaf and blind, she was an advocate for varying causes. Unfortunately, she was pigeon-holed into being an advocate for the blind and, because of being a woman in addition to being blind and deaf, she was not allowed full political agency and activism, although she tried.
Keller had many views which I abhor and find almost unbelievable. For instance, in 1915, a doctor in Chicago, Dr. Harry Haiselden, allowed a baby born with severe disabilities to die. He withheld treatment that would have saved the baby’s life. In a letter to the New Republic, Keller maintained that Dr. Haiselden had done the right thing by euthanizing the baby, whom she called a “poor, misshapen, paralyzed, unthinking creature.” Keller wrote that such a baby was not worthy of life. Many, I’m sure, said the same thing about Keller when she become deaf and blind as a toddler. The difference for her, perhaps, was that she was not born that way. Her disabilities were due to an illness; she was not born that way and therefore, to her, it would not seem hypocritical to have such an opinion.
Keller is heralded as an inspiration, a hero who overcame seemingly insurmountable odds to achieve greatness. This view completely whitewashes her personality, desires, and actions, not to mention that it is a classic case of a poor disabled person who overcomes disability with a good attitude (cough, cough).
Helen Keller is not my hero because she “overcame obstacles,” and she’s certainly not my hero because she championed euthanasia of disabled babies.
She is my hero because she was human. She had views and opinions that I do not personally agree with, but the point is that she was not afraid to voice those opinions even as society–and her “guardians”–wanted to place her in a box. She was constantly publishing works and speaking in support of various causes. She was knowledgeable about the world around her, and was not only interested in disability or what went on in the United States. She was truly a world citizen and activist.
Her dynamic personhood is much more interesting and heroic, in my opinion, than the saintly, virginal spinster history and children’s books would have us believe. History has done a good job of sanitizing her legacy. Thankfully, more work has been published in the last few years that paints a much more multidimensional picture of Keller.
Helen Keller is my hero because she was flawed. She was neither perfect nor saintly, and probably wasn’t virginal either. People with disabilities are often depicted as childlike, innocent beings in need of protection and guidance, whose opinions, if they have any, are those of the adults in their lives. Sure, some of her views were shaped by those around her, but she also formed many of her own opinions. Although she’s not my hero because of her belief in euthanizing disabled babies, this view illustrates to me that she was a flawed individual, just like every other person. Even in 1915, euthanasia was not a widely popular opinion, but, contrary to the stereotypical person with a disability, she spoke her somewhat unpopular opinion anyway.
Keller is my hero because she was a passionate person who did her best to fight for what she believed in even while contemporaries and historical memory try to reign in her voice.