Coining Keller

Alabama has a new state quarter bearing the image of Helen Keller. To be so coined, Keller out-rated a moon rocket and a Cherokee chief. This quarter will be the first US coin in circulation to include Braille! How come that took so long?

Less cause for celebration are the articles announcing the coin where Keller is described as “an Alabama native who overcame blindness and deafness to become a writer and educator.”

Immediately the emails from disability list serves were buzzing about the Keller coin, in particular about the press’s description of Keller “overcoming” her impairments. Rus Cooper-Dowda from Florida wrote “What? She OVERCAME 2 disabilities and tried another one after that? She OVERCAME the other entries and won the Kentucky Derby?”

In case that objection is not clear, I will restate that for disability activists it is not a matter of overcoming impairment so much as confronting prejudices and discrimination blind, deaf, and other impaired persons face in society.

I wondered if the state of Alabama, in so honoring Keller, had it on record that she was a socialist? Did these officials know that she was a member of the Socialist Party and later joined the Industrial Workers of the World, supported the Russian Revolution, women’s suffrage and had come out against the First World War?

More likely the Alabama officials’ view of Keller, as do most Americans’, comes from the movie “The Miracle Worker,” a film that portrayed her as an inspirational overcomer. Keller’s endearing trait for Americans, it seems, was that she succeeded “despite” her impairment with the aide of her nondisabled teacher, Anne Sullivan, precisely what disability pride activists object to today.

Socialists also retain this image of Keller and of impairment generally. A prominent left publication’s introduction of Keller, for instance, stated recently that Keller “struck blind and deaf while a toddler, overcame her disabilities with the help of her teacher Å ”

Emma Goldman commended Keller for “overcom[ing] the most appalling physical disability.” Goldman, of course, was a stout eugenicist and a disability-phobic who found the slightest impairment cause for eradication.

This only shows us that such old attitudes are still pervasive enough to require counters such as Dan Wilkins, aka, wheelchair boy, also Board Chair of The Ability Center of Greater Toledo. Wilkins wrote “what [Keller] OVERCAME was bigotry, societal alienation and stigma, and poor support from Alabama’s social service system … but we’ll never see it written up like that…”

Indeed even though Keller was the national figurehead for the conservative American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), and was considered “successful” in her superstar fundraising position there, she was not a self-supporting socialist. She was dependent on the support of wealthy philanthropists and was nearly always hurting for money – a matter which would cause Keller to curb her more radical activities later in years in order to preserve her affiliation with the AFB charity (charity running against the grain of true socialist principles) and hence, her source of income.

Indeed, Keller posed a sea of contradictions. Keller’s story offers a way to elaborate upon the contrast between what we might term disability consciousness and the lack of it. Personally I have lauded Keller for her socialist commitment to economic revolution yet must remain conflicted over her definitive message. Sadly, she was not able to envision disability emancipation. My greatest disappointment was upon learning that Keller was a supporter of eugenics, the pseudo science that sought to eliminate people like herself from the gene pool.

Such self-deprecation existed in marked contrast to her ability to mount a strong defense when attacked for being mindlessly swayed by socialists. When the Brooklyn Eagle, for instance, sought to undermine Keller by explaining away her socialist tendencies as being the outcome of errors in thinking due to her blindness and deafness she immediately wrote a retort.

But when Keller denounced the Eagle and other institutions of her day, she would frequently do it by using disability as a metaphor for what was unacceptable about them. For example, critiquing the newspaper, she wrote:

” What an ungallant bird it is! Socially blind and deaf, it defends an intolerable system, a system that is the cause of much of the physical blindness and deafness which we are trying to prevent”.

In concluding she muses on the kind of book she would like to write, “I know I shall name it: Industrial Blindness and Social Deafness.”

This and other similar comments (“what surgery of politics, what antiseptic of common sense and right thinking, shall be applied to cure the blindness of our judges and to prevent the blindness of the people who are the last resort”) did little for disability liberation but to further demean the impaired body in a disablist society that was all too willing to go along with the inherent “defectiveness” of impaired persons implicit in these metaphors and to this day continues to do so.

Seemingly a nonconformist for her time, Keller actually conformed on two sides of the disability question. She theorized disability in keeping with the socialist creed by coupling impairment with affliction/inferiority/defect stemming from the ills of capitalism; and did what the AFB expected of her – later curbed her radical politics so not to offend wealthy patrons who would donate to her charity of choice, the AFB.

There is a third looming side to her life: Keller’s glaring omission of disability discrimination and civil rights in her writing and communications. Thanks to the recent work of disability historian Kim Nielsen, we have a disability perspective analysis of Keller’s life. (see Kim Nielsen, “Helen Keller and the Politics of Civic Fitness,” in Paul Longmore and Lauri Umansky, eds., THE NEW DISABILITY HISTORY: AMERICAN PERSPECTIVES (2001).

Unfortunately, the famous Keller never politicized disablement in a way other than “as a personal affliction spawned by social and economic injustices that produced physical impairment” (Nielsen). She never theorized a collective experience that went beyond the medical impairment or personal affliction theory of impairment into the realm of equality and civil rights – what we call today a social model of disablement. Nor did she offer an interpretation of Marx that would not have demeaned the impaired body to make its point.

Keller was celebrated by socialists for economically connecting impairment to industrial capitalism in that Keller denounced capitalism as the cause/producer of impairment. She wrote as long as “ignorance, poverty, and the unconscious cruelty of our commercial society” remained “there will there be blind and crippled men and women.” (This inserts the eugenic thread that a worthy social goal was to rid the world of impaired persons when she was one of those unwanted outcomes.)

She blamed impairments on poverty, the condition of the working class i.e., impairment was “a consequence of class inequalities.” (Nielson) Yet her own blindness and deafness was not caused by industrial work but by a fever when she was a young child. Her middle class family was able to provide Keller with medical attention and proper nutrition. Her impairments were not caused by poverty. Yet Keller believed if poverty and the accident inducing industries of capitalist enterprise could be eradicated so would impairment.

Capitalism does create disablement but we must define our terms. Like other social model adherents before me I use the term “disabled” to designate the socio-economic disadvantages imposed on top of a physical or mental impairment. This definition stands in critical contrast to conventional biological or physical definitions that make it appear that impaired persons are naturally, and therefore, justifiably excluded from the labor force. It also transcends determinist conceptions that hold that one is handicapped by “ableist” biases reflected in the physical environment. In short, disablement is a political economic state of oppression that arises from the arrangement of the relations of production and reproduction.

Historically impaired workers have been excluded from capitalist exploitation. Many disabled persons are unemployed or underemployed against their will. The social condition of disablement is reproduced by oppressive social relations exercised through the mode of production bent on capital accumulation.

Industrial capitalism imposed disablement upon those nonconforming bodies deemed less or not exploitable by the owners of the means of production by segregating them into institutions, employing them in sheltered workshops or much later shoving them out of the workforce onto poverty based disability benefits. Disabled persons to this day remain at the bottom of the reserve army of labor – last to be hired and first to be fired.

Capitalism and social policy under capitalism are detrimental to disabled persons whether they are workers, would-be workers, or people who are unable to work. But socialism, so far, has offered no existing model for disabled persons to emulate either. Disabled people are marginalized in socialist nations to this day.

Keller did not seem to grasp the concept of economic discrimination. Other disabled persons, less well known, with less access to the mainstream press were making some connections to impairment-based discrimination in the US. The League for the Physically Handicapped, for instance, was demanding jobs for mobility-impaired persons who could not get a job in the 1930s. The League formed to oppose disability discrimination in government and private employment and considered the lack of access for disabled workers to private sector jobs an impetus for dissent.

Amongst other sit-ins, members occupied FDR’s Works Progress Administration office insisting on permanent jobs for persons with physical disabilities whom had been stamped “PH” and deemed ineligible for work by the federal government. Joining them was The League for the Advancement of the Deaf. Critics at the time called these disabled people a communist threat. Keller could have made a stellar contribution to their movement!

Instead of integrating disabled persons into regular employment, as the League had demonstrated for however, Roosevelt passed the Wagner-O’Day Act in 1938 that allowed nonprofit agencies to hire blind persons in segregated settings to make items to sell to the Federal Government. Keller had corresponded with the Roosevelts since 1931 yet seemed to make no effort to protest segregated employment. Rather she believed that blind persons should show their worthiness by becoming workers by making mops, brooms, deck swabs, mats, or any items just to be working. It is a puzzling position. Would Keller herself, educated at Radcliff, have wanted one of those jobs?

By contrast, at the more progressive blind organization, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) convention in 1942, blind persons considered these nonprofit workshops to be exploiting blind workers. NFB founder Jacobus tenBroek compared the NFB to the American Federation of Labor:

“Because we are trying to do for our people what organized labor is trying to do for its people, because of the similarity in organizational structure, in purpose and in work, and because of the laboring man’s inherent sympathy for the underprivileged and the conditions under which they live, organized labor has responded more than generously, materially, morally, and with political support.”

In Britain, blind workers registered their own trade union as early as 1899, and later affiliated their organization with the country’s peak labor body, the Trades Union Congress.

To understand Keller’s position is to see that Keller was simply stuck in the old model of disability — one that portrays disability as debilitating and ultimately dehumanizing.

Neilson suggests, in part, Keller was squeezed by notions of civic fitness that “deemed the disabled body unable to meet the individual and personal demands of a body politic that depended on self-government, self-determination, and individual autonomy.” In addition Keller was isolated from other disabled persons. Indeed much of what the disability movements have solidified today is a direct result of associating with one another.

For whatever reasons Keller’s omission, in the long run, must result in a politics of self-defeat because it did not challenge inequality or exclusion based upon disablement. Our multiple disability movements’ efforts have been to change the public’s concept of disability from one of tragedy and cure to one that recognizes impairment as a natural part of the totality of humankind.

What needs to be coined is that our lives whether deaf, blind, mobility impaired, developmentally disabled or otherwise are lives that can be fully lived free from self-deprecation, discrimination and poverty – all of which might be eradicated by socio-economic goals which do not rely upon the work ethic or the accumulation of bodies as founding principles.

Marta Russell can be reached at [email protected] http://www.disweb.org —

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