Today is Helen Keller Day. And that's no joke.
Perhaps even mentioning this is not politically correct, but as far back as when I was a kid and she was still alive, Helen Keller jokes were common. Making fun of disability, something someone without deep personal experience can never understand, is a defense mechanism. It masks fear and provides cover in some deluded belief the offender, by way of some rude joke, is better than the person they are ridiculing.
Part of Helen Keller’s life's work was to make people deal with the existence and experiences of the disabled, even if it made them uncomfortable. In the late 1800’s, when Keller was born, those without the ability to see, hear or speak were often relegated to a bedroom in the family home (at best), or institutionalized (at worst). But Keller, who lost her ability to see and hear through illness at nineteen-months-old, accepted no such outcomes. She would go on to become the first deaf-blind person to earn a bachelor of arts degree, graduating Radcliffe College cum laude at age twenty-four. She was a tireless advocate for improving the welfare of the disabled, as well as shedding light on such unpopular social and political causes of the day as women’s suffrage and birth control.
In 1959, when playwright William Gibson brought Keller’s story to the Broadway stage, she was one of the most famous women in America. It was two stories really: that of Helen's as well as her teacher Anne Sullivan, who single-handedly drew out a six-year-old child from a dark and silent world. The Miracle Worker was a huge success on stage and again three years later, when Gibson, director Arthur Penn, and actors Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke joined together in transforming the drama to the screen (Bancroft and Duke winning Academy Awards for their efforts).
I recently attended a play Off-Broadway at the Clurman Theatre on 42nd Street by Samuel D. Hunter called The Healing. Hunter, whose 2014 play The Whale was one of the best new plays I’ve seen in the last few years, wrote The Healing specifically for a nearly forty-year-old company called Theater Breaking Through Barriers, dedicated to advancing the work of writers, directors and performers with disabilities. It actually began as Theatre by the Blind, an integrated company that mixed blind, low-vision and sighted artists in their work. Whether this well-regarded company’s work would have been possible without Helen Keller is debatable, but her efforts on behalf of the rights of the blind and disabled had an influence which can never be underestimated.
The Healing features a cast with a wide range of disabilities, every one of whom conveys strength, weakness, nobility, anxiety, joy, anger and a host of complex emotions. It was a distinct pleasure to see and experience this play and especially these actors and their depth of feeling. I recommend it wholeheartedly.
On the 100th anniversary of her birth, President Jimmy Carter proclaimed June 27, 1980 “Helen Keller Day.” Perhaps it’s time to bring her example to the forefront again, considering the world can use more of her philosophy. As she once said: “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched—they must be felt with the heart.”
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