What’s the deal with Helen Keller?

This is a part of a series called That’s a good question designed to provide answers to questions I commonly receive from interested individuals. I do not claim to have all the answers, nor do I attempt to provide concrete answers to every question. However, I do hope to provide opportunities to rethink existing questions.

That’s a Good Question

If you have noticed the uptick in conversations related to Helen Keller, you might be asking yourself why the increase in chatter or why does it matter. I’d like to unpack this a bit.

In order to do this we need to go back a few months to a post by Anita Cameron. In her, now famous, post Cameron argued that Keller is “just another, despite disabilities, privileged white person.” This, of course, drew outrage from a variety of sources. Some saw it as “woke” culture at its extreme. Others saw it as something other.

Following Cameron’s post and the uproar on social media from both sides of the debate, Helen Keller was trending online. This resulted in a new generation of individuals becoming familiar with Helen Keller and her story. Specifically the younger generation (specifically Generation Z as well as some of the Millennial generation) began to debate the issue on social media platform Tik Tok. The discussions on TikTok came to the conclusion that either Helen Keller did not exist (how could someone both blind and deaf accomplish all she accomplished?) or she was a fraud (The argument being that she wasn’t completely blind or deaf, but rather she was perpetrating a fraud on America).

So, why does it matter? Let me unpack each of these. First, Cameron’s post. The outrage over Cameron’s post appeared to be a response to overwrought woke-ness. However, after a deeper dive, it is evident that a meaningful opportunity was missed. What was missed in the backlash was that individuals of color experience disability differently than do white individuals. Lack of expectations, lack of services, lack of resources, etc. often hamper the efforts of disabled individuals of color, and their families. The platform Cameron chose (social media in general) does not lend itself to nuanced conversations. As someone who works alongside disabled individuals, I have seen the disparate treatment based on race or socio-economic status. Regardless of the manner in which the message was presented, those of us who work in the field should not ignore disparate treatment within often-marginalized groups.

Connected to Cameron’s post was the response that can best be summarized as “how dare someone challenge poor Helen Keller and all she overcame.” Obviously those people have never seen “Helen Keller the Musical” from Season 4 of Southpark. Regardless, there is an underlying theme that the disabled are so pitiable that there can be no privilege within that group. Moreover, the sharpest critics of Cameron’s post (Donald Trump Jr., Ted Cruze) don’t seem to be actively engaged in supporting, partnering, or advocating for the disabled community. Again, while I would have preferred that Cameron’s message was more nuanced (I know a pipe dream in a social media world), I acknowledge that there are issues within her post that deserve thoughtful reflection and dialogue. However, the idea that a disabled individual cannot be critiqued or challenged, is, in and of itself, abelist. Moreover, in consideration of Keller’s affinity for, partnership with, those within the Eugenics movement.

The TikTok responses to Helen Keller seems a bit more straightforward, but also more troublesome. The rejection of Helen Keller as a legitimate individual who was blind and deaf demonstrates an undercurrent of ableism. The argument that a disabled individual could not possible accomplish X or Y is ableist. This is simply another take on the “surprised by success” narrative wherein temporarily abled bodied individuals or neurotypicals are surprised at any accomplishment by someone who identifies as disabled. Subsequently, the smallest achievement is then considered brave or heroic (this is what is frequently referred to as “inspiration porn”).

Both Cameron’s post as well as the TikTok deniers present opportunities for those of us who live and work alongside those who identify as disabled. As such, this isn’t an issue to be dismissed, but rather seized upon as opportunity. This is an opportunity to listen more (rather than impulsively post or respond). This is an opportunity to share a different narrative than the tragic narrative that others have come to expect.

We cannot escape the speed at which social media caricatures ideas and people. However, we can send a different message by how we live and how we love.

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