End the Helen Keller jokes

By Elise Martorano

Helen Keller is shown in a graduation photo from Radcliff College in 1904. Her book "The Story of my Life" was once an inspiration for many but has fallen off many school reading lists. (gsb) 2003 (Diversity)
Helen Keller is shown in a graduation photo from Radcliff College in 1904. Her book “The Story of my Life” was once an inspiration for many but has fallen off many school reading lists. (gsb) 2003 (Diversity)

All it takes nowadays to send a group of young people into hysterics is the mention of Helen Keller. In popular games such as Apples to Apples, her name is often a win-all card. The band 3OH!3 ridiculed and sexualized her image with their song “Don’t Trust Me,” released in 2008, which featured the lines, “Shush girl, shut your lips / Do the Helen Keller and talk with your hips.” And the first suggestion that comes up when you type “Helen Keller” into a Google search is “Helen Keller jokes.”

The unspoken excuses for making fun of Helen Keller, the infamous face of disability, reveal disgusting amounts of ableism, which allows people to overlook Keller’s accomplishments not just as a person who lived with blindness and deafness, but as a person who achieved more in her lifetime than many of us ever will.

Able-bodied people’s ability to ridicule those who have physical and mental disabilities stems from a place of enormous and overwhelming privilege. Helen Keller has been pigeonholed as a punchline, seemingly needless of any explanation. Ask anybody who guffaws at the mention of her name why they truly think she is funny and that person will probably turn red and find themselves at a total loss for words.

Helen Keller is a joke because she just so happened to contract an illness very early in her life that left her incapable of seeing and hearing and severely limited her initial ability to speak. Because she was debilitated by circumstances beyond her (or anyone’s) control, she is ridiculed now. This is because she is somehow categorized as a person with lesser intelligence or social conscience, with lesser humanity.

Those who find Keller hilarious would do well to consider what exactly it is that they are making fun of.

At the age of seven, Keller began learning how to communicate by tapping her fingers on the palm of a person’s hand with the help of longtime teacher Anne Sullivan. At the age of 10, she began speech classes and spent 25 years learning how to articulate comprehensible speech. At the age of 16, she began attending the Cambridge School for Young Ladies, a school that was not designed for students with disabilities. She went on to attend Radcliffe College; her education there was funded by a friend of Mark Twain.

At the age of 21, Keller wrote her first book and at 24 graduated cum laude from Radcliffe. Throughout her college career, she lectured around the country to spread awareness and garner support for people with disabilities. In addition, she also advocated for such causes as suffrage, pacifism and birth control.

Following graduation, Keller joined the Socialist Party, for which she was an outspoken advocate for several years. In support of her multiple causes, she wrote numerous articles, conducted interviews and even sent several letters to Presidents Herbert Hoover and Harry Truman. Throughout her life, her writing and transcripts of speeches and interviews reveal an overwhelmingly intelligent and well-spoken voice, as well as extremely quick wit and gentle sarcasm.

In 1915, she founded Helen Keller International, whose mission is to “save the sight and lives of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.” In 1920 she assisted in founding the American Civil Liberties Union and in 1924 became an active member of the American Federation for the Blind, travelling the country to raise money and awareness for the cause.

In 1946, Keller became the counselor of international relations for the American Foundation of Overseas Blind and within the following 11 years travelled to 35 countries spread across five continents. Throughout the course of her life, Keller was presented with many national and international awards, not due to her ability to “overcome” disability, but because of her incredible humanitarian work.

Those who would mock Keller because of her disability choose to willfully ignore several things that are vital in understanding this historic woman and of the operations of socially constructed hierarchies in general. First, disability is not a condition that must be overcome, or one that solidifies a disabled person’s identity as being less actualized or less important than someone who is able-bodied (or able-minded). Second, reducing Helen Keller’s identity to simply being a woman who was deaf and blind indicates that one’s disabilities define who they are and what they can achieve, which is supposedly less than what those without disabilities are capable of. Third, the achievements made by Helen Keller were not deliberately brought about by her disability and her disability did not imbue her with an overwhelming compassion for human life and a motivated desire to improve those lives that have been disadvantaged by a lack of privilege.

Reducing Helen Keller to a punchline erases in the minds of able-bodied people the potential that disabled people have. This allows those people to neglect to acknowledge that Helen Keller’s accomplishments are more meaningful and significant than the majority of able-bodied people will ever be capable of and reduces people like Helen Keller to a subordinate position simply because of their disabilities. Ignoring the superficial hierarchies created by able-bodied and able-minded people to subordinate the disabled allows the self-made privileges that are born out of them to remain firmly in place. This reinforces a disturbingly cruel close-mindedness that allows oppression to be perpetuated through such things as Helen Keller jokes.

Elise Martorano is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected].