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Thursday, 24 January 2013

The Legacy of Helen Keller

Helen Keller is without doubt the most famous blind person alive or dead. But it is astonishing how many blind people have very mixed feelings about her legacy. I remember when we studied her at primary school along with other 'inspiratinal figures' like Florence Nightingale and Martin Luther King. I was embarrassed  and upset by her story of triumph over tragedy. She made me feel at once inadequate and angry: inadequate because I knew I'd never have her patience or tenacity, and angry because her story was told with a sentimentalising pity which assumed that blindness was a horrific affliction which only superlative amounts of courage and determination could help you escape from. Yet at the same time it felt confusing and disloyal not to like her when her story seemed to be saying that all blind people (myself included) should try to be like her.

When I started encountering other blind academics last year I realised that I was not alone in my misgivings. Both Cathy Kudlick and Georgina Kleege have written about the problems of the Helen Keller Legacy.

So when I was asked to write a blog post about a Kickstarter Fundraising Campaign which is making a film inspired by Keller's essay 'Three Days to See' I wasn't sure how to respond. The film aims to raise awareness about the nature of blindness and the difficulties faced by young blind and partially sighted adults as they leave the protected world of education and head out into the sighted world. I have no doubt that the film will present a more positive image of blindness than other recent films. And of course it is crucial to raise awareness of the reality of blindness by showing the general public that blind people are not deficient or lacking individuals who should be pitied, saved or cured. But I was worried that the film would (unknowingly) reproduce some of the insidious myths of triumph and tragedy which continue to haunt representations of disability.

The film will only be made if enough money is raised, but a trailer already exists. As I watched I was relieved to see that the film-makers seem to have avoided (almost all) sentimentality. They focus instead on the articulate and thoughtful blind student whose story structures the film. We hear her thoughts and fears alongside images of her and her classmates studying, relaxing and exploring the world around them. What comes across most strongly is the sense that these adolescents are just like millions of adolescents all over the world. They are individuals on the brink of adulthood. Their blindness does not define them: it is part of who they are, like hair colour or body shape but it is not a limit or a hindrance. It is a way of relating to the world which is just as valid as the more well-known sighted way. It turns out that blind people are not all the same.

The film combines images of today's teenagers with Helen Keller's words. Some of these quotations, particularly those that focus on humanity, made me think that I had judged Keller too harshly. Or perhaps I was only shown one side of her at school. I am still uneasy about her insistence that she is missing out on something by being blind, but in the end her legacy must be a good thing if it creates confident and articulate adolescents who have perceptive opinions about their place in the world.

This is a film that needs to be made because it will show the world that blindness is not a disabling affliction. It is people's attitudes to the blind that disable them, not their blindness. To help make this film happen go to their fundraising page.

1 comment:

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