Today, Anna over at FWD/Forward is hosting a Helen Keller mythbusting blogswarm. It is surprising how ignorant even I, who definitely heard of Keller many years ago, was about her until very recently. I knew that she was the first deafblind person to earn a college degree, but that was pretty much everything I knew about her except for the stereotypical story about the hand and the water. Of course, graduating from college is an accomplishment not to be minimized, but it simply wasn’t Keller’s only achievement..
As a leftist, I find it very interesting to find out that Helen Keller was a socialist. This is one of the major reasons Keller’s political activism is so little known. Of course, in the early twentieth-centry United States as well as today, socialist activism is not generally appreciated. On top of it, Keller was a suffragist, which was also not liked. As a result, media representations of her shifted from pride in her achievements to focusing solely on her disability. Thereby, the people who used to value Keller were now using ableist tactics to discredit her.
In addition to being a Socialist Party member and a suffragist, Keller helped found the American Civil Liberties Union, which to this day helps fight for the civil rights and liberties of people in the United States. The ACLU is still often seen as somewhat radical, but has gained more appreciation over the years. It is sad that Keller’s involvement in the founding of this organization is not recognized.
All of these achievements would’ve been worthy of recognition regardless of Keller’s disabilities. Her disabilities, however, are used by supporters to make her a token for the disability community, which she wasn’t, and by opponents, to minimize her achievements to her college degree. It is not always easy to tell why people support or oppose Keller: is it disability pride or ableism, as was the case for me, or is it politics? The two are often intertwined, and this is one reason we learn so little about Helen Keller’s achievements as a person and an activist.