Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Helen and Me

Helen Keller is probably the most well-known deafblind person of our time. Born in a century when people with disabilities were institutionalized, kept at home with their families or forced to beg on the streets, Helen accomplished so very much in her lifetime.

The way the public views deafblind people and many of the opportunities we have now are a direct result of the work of Helen Keller and Anne sullivan.

Using the manual alphabet, Anne would spell words into Helen's palm. Helen's first comprehension of language was memorialized in the movie "The Miracle Worker."

Helen was the first deafblind person to graduate college. She spent her life educating others and bringing awareness to the issues of deafblindness.

There is a very rare film which shows Anne Sullivan explaining the process she used to teach Helen Keller to speak and to speech read using her hand. You can see the video

At first it seems like a wonderful thing, encouraging her to speak, and to speech read. I would agree that having as many tools as one can in your "communication toolbox" is a smart idea. But honestly, something about this video bothers me; it bothers me very much.

I feel like Helen is treated like a circus performer in a show. Not there to be of real benefit to others but to "show" what she can do and to "inspire" people. Hearing people think of speech as the "normal" way of communicating. We all want to be "normal." But what is "normal" worth when it doesn't fully meet our needs?Speech reading is hard to do and is an impractical skill for most deafblind people to acquire. However the general (hearing) public feels inspired when they see it. But how much did the ability to speech read by touch really improve Helen's life? Was it more a benefit to the hearing/sighted people around her, to be used as some kind of spectacle?

I know how it feels to be treated like an object on display. When I'm in public, minding my own business people stare at me. They stare at the dog, at the braille PDA, at my hands as they sign and as they touch the hands of my friend or SSP. I deal with the staring, the intrusive questions and constant interruptions because it is the nature of my existence. If I want to be out in public at all, I have to accept the fact that people feel like it is their god-given right to ask me personal questions and invade my personal space. I don't have to answer their questions and I usually try to be polite, but firm when I make it very clear that I'm busy and don't have time to talk right now. However in professional and personal situations I've been asked by people to "put on a show" for others so they can see what "it is like to be deafblind." I understand Helen's need to educate, but at what cost?

Helen really never had a life of her own beyond that of "the famous deafblind woman." People never seemed to see her as an ordinary person. She was always amazing! inspirational! clever.

She is not amazing and inspirational because of her deafblindness, no more than I am. What made Helen special was her drive to learn, her ability to connect with all different types of people, her constant striving for knowledge and self-improvement.

I can't help but be sad when I think about Helen Keller. Would she have wanted to do something else with her life? Something that didn't involve her deafblindness? Was this need of hers, to be able to speak, and to speech read, born out of a desire to be able to better blend in with everyday folks?

I sometimes wish that I could talk to her-- to ask her questions and to tell her what a difference she has made for all of us. She will never benefit from the work that she did, but I will.

Helen Keller was a pioneer. She had no deafblind role-models because she *was* the deafblind role-model. Every day I thank the universe that I was born in a time of great technological advances. Because of the internet, I have met many of my Deafblind role-models both in person and online. Through their example I have learned to be proud of who I am. I have learned that it is OK to be different-- to sign in public, and that if people stare, so what. I have learned that I am not just a deafblind person. I am a deafblind person who is a teacher, a wife, a dog trainer, an herbalist, a pack leader, a friend and a role-model in return.

When people meet me, I want them to see the whole picture-- all of the things that I am and am not. Deafblindness is an important part of who I am, but it is not everything I am.

1 comment:

  1. I totally agree with you on the whole circus act thing (and I actually wrote a blog post that touched on the feelings you expressed here last summer for Helen Keller Day). I just thought the video was neat because it actually exists. I mean, it's so old! Up until I watched this, I'd only ever read about the many performances Helen and Anne made.