Becoming Helen Keller: The Transcript from the Event Exploring the Life and Legacy of Helen Keller

Andy/ October 19, 2021/ AFB, DeafBlind, helen keller

The following is the basic transcript and introductory remarks from event exploring the life and legacy of Helen Keller and the movie “Becoming Helen Keller”

Michael Kantor: Hello, I’m Michael Kantor. I’m a white, cis male, age 60, who used to have a lot more hair, and I’m wearing a pink shirt and a blue sports coat. I’m standing on the traditional lands of the Mohican Tribe in Sheffield, Massachusetts. I’m also Executive Producer of American Masters, an award-winning arts and culture documentary series from The WNET Group, home of PBS Stations THIRTEEN, WLIW 21, and NJ-PBS. It’s my great pleasure to be here with you today to explore the incredible life and enduring impact of Helen Keller as we celebrate National Disability Employment Awareness Month. I want to extend a special thank you to PBS stations Alabama Public Television, Iowa PBS, WCNY, WFYI, WGCU Public Media, WQED, WQLN Public Media, and WXXI for their participation in tonight’s event. And a warm thank you to our supporters and viewers in the audience this evening. Your dedication helps The WNET Group bring iconic series like American Masters to New Yorkers and families across the country. Thank you. Now in our 35th season on PBS, American Masters illuminates the lives and creative journeys of our most enduring cultural giants. Those like Helen Keller, who have left an indelible impression on our national landscape.

Becoming Helen Keller rediscovers the complex life and legacy of the iconic author and activist who was deaf and blind since childhood, exploring how she used her celebrity and wit to advocate for social justice, particularly for women, workers, people with disabilities, and people living in poverty. American Masters is committed to access for the documentary. The series website has an accessible landing page for the film, including tools for changing color contrast and text size. An additional version of the film with extended audio description and a descriptive transcript are also available. Stay with us following tonight’s preview for a panel discussion featuring leading experts on the life and legacy of Helen Keller. Moderated by author, psychotherapist, and disability rights advocate Rebecca Alexander, who narrates the film. You won’t want to miss it! I hope you’ll check out the full film either through your local PBS station or online. But now, please enjoy highlights from American Masters: Becoming Helen Keller. Thank you.

American Masters: Becoming Helen Keller Film Excerpts

Male voice: Major support for “American Masters” provided by…

Jo Ann Jenkins: These days, we need each other more than ever. That’s why AARP created Community Connections, an online tool to find or create a mutual-aid group, get help, or help those in need. Stay connected with AARP.

Male voice: Support for “Becoming Helen Keller,” “American Masters,” and ITVS provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Support for “American Masters” provided by Rosalind P. Walter, Seton J. Melvin, the Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation, Cheryl and Philip Milstein family. Lillian Goldman Programming Endowment, the Philip and Janice Levin Foundation, Judith and Burton Resnick, the Andre and Elizabeth Kertesz Foundation, Ellen and James S. Marcus, the Ambrose Monell Foundation. Support for “Becoming Helen Keller” and “American Masters” provided by Vital Projects Fund. “Becoming Helen Keller” has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, bringing you the stories that define us. The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Additional support for this program provided by NEC Foundation of America. The Gibney Family Foundation, The Better Angels Society including The Fullerton Family Charitable Fund, The National Endowment for the Arts. And the following, and others. A complete list is available from PBS. And by contributions to your PBS stations from viewers like you. Thank you. This program includes historical descriptions of people with disabilities that many now consider offensive. Viewer discretion is advised.

Rebecca Alexander: My name is Rebecca Alexander. I am narrating the Helen Keller documentary, and I am DeafBlind myself. I have Usher Syndrome, which is the leading cause of deaf blindness in the U.S. and around the world.

Man: Here’s your chair.

Rebecca (Narrator): 3, 2, 1…

Narrator: October 7th, 2009, Washington, D.C. A statue of Helen Keller is about to be unveiled inside the capitol. A 600-pound bronze sculpture of a child standing near a water pump. That moment, made famous in the 1962 film The Miracle Worker, was the day the DeafBlind girl had a breakthrough with her teacher, Annie Sullivan.

Bob Riley: W-A-T-E-R… This moment helped the world understand that all of us, regardless of any disability, have a mind that can be educated, a hand that can be trained.

Alexandria Wailes (using American Sign Language): My name is Alexandria Wailes. In this documentary, I will be signing Helen Keller’s words.

Cherry Jones (speaking Helen Keller’s words): “In large measure we travel the same highways, read the same books, speak the same language. Yet, our experiences are different. In all of my experiences and thoughts, I am conscious of a hand. Whatever moves me — whatever thrills me — is as a hand that touches me in the dark: and that touch is my reality.”

Narrator: Keller lived to be 87. Yet here she was, put on a pedestal and frozen in time.

Bob: This extraordinary person showed us the power of a determined human spirit and reminded all of us that courage and strength can exist in the most unlikely places.

Mary Klages: The images that we have of Helen Keller are a media creation. She is a poster child. She’s too good to be true.

Georgina Kleege: The story, the overcoming, the saintly figure, I wish we could retire that.

Susan Schweik: My primary image of Helen Keller growing up was from the miracle worker. And the total complexity of her adult life. Her learnedness, her fiery-ness, her politics, her full adult being, all of that is erased, and what we remember is wa-wa.

Alexandria: In her journey, that is a minuscule moment. It reduces the idea of what a DeafBlind person is, what her life would look like.

Kim Nielsen: I came across lists from 1924 of what some people called the Ten Most Dangerous Women in America. And Helen Keller was on this list. And I actually remember laughing out loud, that Helen Keller was listed as one of the Ten Most Dangerous Women in America, and I wanted to know why.

Rebecca: She was a pioneer, and she was such a trailblazer for so many of these civil rights and social movements in ways that none of us can really even quite comprehend…But she had this innate curiosity.

Male voice (as Mark Twain): “The two most interesting characters of the 19th century are Napoleon and Helen Keller. Napoleon tried to conquer the world by physical force and failed. Helen Keller tried to conquer the world by power of mind and succeeded.”

Cherry (speaking Helen Keller’s words): “I was too young to realize what had happened. When I awoke and found that all was dark and still, I suppose I thought it was night, and I must’ve wondered why day was so long in coming. Gradually, however…I got used to the silence and darkness.”

Douglas Baynton: Helen became blind and deaf at a year and a half. And so, she had already had some exposure to-to language, to the world of sound and sight. And…And that has important implications for your later educational development.

Narrator: As a young girl, Helen used what deaf people call “home signs.”

Alexandria: Home signs are very limited because they’re developed out of necessity, out of survival. They are basic gestures for food or sleep that a family unit would decide that they understood. So, it would be their own way of communicating in their home, and it would be different from another family’s home. They wouldn’t be able to achieve that level of complexity of communication.

Douglas: Helen Keller had a sign for her mother that looked something like this. She had a sign for her father that had to do with representing his eyeglasses. She had signs for concrete actions like eating and drinking, that kind of thing.

Narrator: The Kellers lived in Tuscumbia, Alabama. Helen’s father Arthur had served in the confederate army and ran a small newspaper. They were not rich and not sure how to guide their daughter.

Douglas: The Kellers are working with very little information. They could have sent her to a school for the deaf or school for the blind possibly, but that’s not an ideal choice.

Kim: Helen’s mother Kate was a very well-read woman… and she at some point when Keller was small, read Charles Dickens’ American Notes of 1842. And in that book, Charles Dickens talked about Laura Bridgman, another DeafBlind woman who had been educated. And Keller’s mother Kate became very hopeful. She wanted that same thing for her child. She had resisted the institutionalization of Helen.

Narrator: Bridgman went to the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston, Massachusetts where she learned to communicate with fingerspelling. The Kellers appealed to the school’s director Michael Anagnos.

Mary: When Anagnos gets a letter from Captain Arthur Keller saying, “We have a DeafBlind daughter. Do you have anybody there that could teach her?” Anagnos says, “Yes, I do. It’s Annie Sullivan.”

Annie Sullivan: When I saw Miss Helen Keller first, she was six years and eight months old. She had been blind and deaf and mute since her nineteenth month, as the result of an illness. She had no way of communicating with those around her, except a few imitative signs that she had made for herself. A push meant go and a pull meant come and so on.

Narrator: Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller would be together for the next fifty years. They were rarely ever separated.

Georgina: Anne Sullivan, she came from this uh…Extremely deprived background. It was really kind of a desperate situation.

Narrator: Sullivan suffered from trachoma – a bacterial infection that caused vision loss. She was a ward of the state and an illiterate 14-year-old when she arrived at Perkins. Six years later, Annie graduated class valedictorian. And after a series of eye operations, her vision had improved.

Kim: The career opportunities for a blind woman at this point in time were incredibly small and then here came this letter, seeking a teacher for a young DeafBlind girl.

Narrator: Once in Alabama, Sullivan recorded her experience in letters sent back to Boston.

Female voice (as Annie Sullivan): Somehow, I had expected to see a pale, delicate child, but there’s nothing pale or delicate about Helen. She is large, strong, and ruddy, and as unrestrained in her movements as a young colt.

Mary: Annie came to the Keller’s house and said, “Before I can teach this child anything, I have to make an intervention” as we would call it now. The intervention is absolutely physical. It can’t be anything else, because Helen doesn’t have language yet. This is the shock in the miracle worker when it first appeared on the Broadway stage. It brought Helen’s physicality, it brought her body to the center of the stage. And she says, “The miracle has occurred. She will obey me.”

Female voice (as Annie Sullivan): The back of the greatest obstacle in the path of progress is broken. “No” and “yes” have become facts, as apparent to her as hot and cold.

Narrator: Annie taught Helen the manual tactile alphabet. Letter by letter, she fingerspelled whole sentences into Helen’s hands

Georgina: Her accomplishment, uh, was that she made the observation that a hearing child learns language, because they’re always surrounded by language. Once she uh, was with Keller, she was fingerspelling to her constantly, dawn to dusk. So that Keller kind of picked up language in a more natural way.

Art Roehrig (using American Sign Language): Some DeafBlind people are fluent signers. It depends on when the person became deaf and blind. For example, a person born blind who becomes deaf later in life usually prefers to spell out words. A person born deaf who later becomes blind usually prefers to sign.

Narrator: Annie taught Helen how to read using books in raised print and how to write with a lettering system called “square hand.”

Georgina: She latched onto writing at a very early point. In Anne Sullivan’s account of teaching her, uh, particularly in the first months of their being together, she tells a story about Keller, who was fingerspelling to herself and then pretending that she… she was writing a letter. And then she took the letter to her mother and she said, “Take it to the post office and mail it.” It was like she grasped this idea that she could write and send her words out into the world – and get a response back from people that she’d…She’d never met. And that was a very powerful idea for her as a child.

Narrator: Back at Perkins, Michael Anagnos was eager to spread the word about the progress Annie was making with her new student.

Mary: With Helen Keller, he sees an opportunity to say, “Look at what this woman, who is a graduate of Perkins, has been able to do with this unfortunate DeafBlind girl, in making her a human being.

Narrator: “Her progress was not a gradual advancement but sort of a triumphal march,” Anagnos wrote in one dispatch sent to Perkins alumni and benefactors. But Annie Sullivan resisted this narrative and the way it would be used.

Female voice (as Annie Sullivan): I appreciate the kind things Mr. Anagnos has said about Helen and me, but his extravagant way of saying them rubs me the wrong way. The truth is not wonderful enough to suit the newspapers; so, they enlarge upon it and invent ridiculous embellishments.

Narrator: When she is eight, Helen enrolls at the Perkins School.

Cherry (speaking Helen Keller’s words): “In the school, I was in my own country. What joy.”

Narrator: Helen and Annie also worked on another way for Helen to communicate using lip reading and vibrations.

Annie Sullivan: And I let her see, by putting her hand on my face, how we talk with our mouths. She felt the vibrations of the spoken word. Instantly she spelled, “I want to talk with my mouth.” That seemed impossible. But after experimenting for a time, we found that placing her hand in this position — the thumb resting on the throat right at the larynx, the first finger on the lips, the second on the nose, we found that she could feel the vibrations of spoken words.

Narrator: While this wasn’t always accurate, it allowed Helen a direct connection with people and she used it often in public. From the time she was a young girl, Helen was eager to speak.

Cherry (speaking Helen Keller’s words): “I had known for a long time that people around me used a method of communication different from mine…one who is entirely dependent on the manual alphabet has always a sense of restraint…of narrowness. My thoughts would often rise up and beat like birds against the wind, and I persisted in using my lips and voice.”

Narrator: She received help from a friend Alexander Graham Bell, now best known as the creator of the telephone, then a leader in deaf education.

Douglas: That’s what he saw as his mission in life—in particular, teaching of speech and oral communication. He was a public advocate, uh, for the suppression of sign language in the schools, and for the teaching of oral skills in schools.

Rebecca: Oralism in general, I think, has a very oppressive quality to it, because what oralism is predicated on is the idea that the only way to communicate effectively is being able to speak.

Douglas: Speech teaching was a central part of Bell’s life, and he married a deaf woman, Mabel Bell, who was also a public advocate for the oral method.

Narrator: When Bell learned Helen was speaking, he went to Perkins, and spelled questions into her hands.

Male voice (as Alexander Graham Bell): Do you know what a cloud is?
Cherry (as Helen Keller): Rain.
Male voice (as Alexander Graham Bell): What is wind?
Cherry (as Helen Keller): It is wild air.
Male voice (as Alexander Graham Bell): What is a thought?
Cherry (as Helen Keller): When we make a mistake, we say I thought it was right.
Male voice (as Alexander Graham Bell): Where is your thought?
Cherry (as Helen Keller): Mind. My head is full of mind.

Alexandria: That part of Helen Keller’s story, I learned later in my life. When I discovered that, from a modern lens, from a contemporary lens, even though I was young, I was a little disappointed. I was disappointed because it meant that sign language communication was something to be discarded, not something to be interesting. So as I was growing up and finding my own deaf identity, I couldn’t really relate. For that time, and who she was around, and how she was raised, I think the choice to assimilate with her hearing peers and those in her environment, I get it, I get it.

Narrator: In their three and a half years working closely together, John and Annie had fallen in love. And they married in the spring of 1905. Macy moved into their house outside of Boston and the three of them cultivated friends who were journalists, poets, teachers and labor activists.

Kim: She became increasingly interested in politics. And with John Macy, this was her entry into that world. She wanted to know why some people were poor and some people were not. She thought that was incredibly unjust…And she began to look at why that was the case.

Cherry (speaking Helen Keller’s words): “How did I become a socialist? By reading. It’s no easy thing to absorb through one’s fingers a book of 50,000 words on economics, but it is a pleasure I shall enjoy repeatedly until I have made myself familiar with all the classic socialist authors.”

Peter Hall: Socialism was an enormously appealing uh, movement in the early decades of the 20th century. It flourished in circles of educated people, especially educated young people.

Cherry (speaking Helen Keller’s words): “It can’t be unreasonable to ask of a society a fair chance for all. It can’t be unreasonable to demand the protection of women and children and an honest wage for all. When shall we learn that we are all related one to the other, that we are all members of one body?”

Narrator: Helen would go on to write articles for The Call, a New York City socialist newspaper. Its women’s pages regularly discussed birth control, wages for women workers, and child care. When Keller began working on disability issues, job opportunities for blind people were extremely limited.

Brian Miller: Broom making, chair caning, um…Uh, some basic industrial arts and crafts. Women were involved in mattress repair and sewing and they…They would develop lace. They would do embroideries. They would make pillows. A lot of uh…Not particularly advanced industrial enterprises.

Cherry (speaking Helen Keller’s words): “It’s terrible to be blind and to be uneducated; but it’s worse for the blind who have finished their education, to be idle.”

Narrator: Helen teamed up with a friend, Charlie Campbell.

Sassy Outwater-Wright: When Helen Keller and Charles Campbell created the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, they were angry, but they needed to get people on their side. They needed to advance the civil rights of blind people…And they had to figure out a diplomatic way to do that while at the same time forcefully possessing ownership of their own experience.

Cherry (speaking Helen Keller’s words): “I appeared before the Massachusetts legislature to urge the necessity of employment for the blind and to ask for a state commission, to which I was appointed. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the curtain rose on my life’s work.”

Narrator: Among the commission’s earliest achievements was helping to reduce blindness in babies. One of the big causes was gonorrhea, unknowingly passed on from mother to child.

Janet Golden: Gonorrhea is affecting all of these babies. They’re being exposed. They’re going to have sore eyes. Many of them will go blind. It becomes a matter of let’s not keep this something shameful and hidden. Let’s find it and treat it.

Mary: Because she was both female and blind, it was safe for Helen to talk about things that other women would not be able to, like venereal disease. No one would think that it’s because she knew that firsthand.

Narrator: The Ladies’ Home Journal took on this taboo subject and invited Helen and other women to write about it.

Laura Lovett: Ladies’ Home Journal is targeted at the home. It goes into everyone’s households. And this is a culture where women aren’t allowed to talk about sex. Where no one is allowed to talk about sex. Where, in fact, women are not supposed to speak in public.

Cherry (speaking Helen Keller’s words): “The facts are not agreeable reading, often they are revolting. It may be objected that women cannot be trusted with such a painful revelation. They must be. I cannot help it. The time has come for plain speaking.”

Narrator: A few drops of silver nitrate would end up being the prevention.

Cherry (speaking Helen Keller’s words): “I think it was the happiest moment of my life when I was told that the day nursery for blind babies in Boston, once full, is now almost empty.”

Narrator: But despite all she helped to accomplish and all the work being done to improve blind lives, the commission members were not equal. While reports were often provided in braille for Helen and her blind colleagues, there were no accommodations for Helen’s deafness. She had to provide the interpreters and was never able to access all of the available information.

Cherry (speaking Helen Keller’s words): “At the meetings, the endless minutiae were impossible to grasp through hand spelling. I felt incompetent to enter into discussions only part of which any human being could give me. My mind became confused and suggestions I intended making usually failed to materialize. I decided to resign.”

Narration: By now, Keller is nearly 30. Famous since childhood, she is sought out by journalists and photographers. From the time she was a small girl, her protruding left eye was always carefully concealed. Keller decided to change that.

Sassy: She needed to pass for public inspection. She needed to be someone that looked normal and comfortable to the media consuming public.

Mary: She has her eyes replaced with glass eyes, which make her look like her eyes are always open, bright, shining, and seeing.

Sassy: Removing the eye is a difficult procedure to go through. I’ve been through it twice, and, uh, for her to go through that at 30 years of age, would have, at that time, been a very difficult experience, and all of this was, was private.

Narrator: Keller continued to work on her speech and learned new breathing techniques often used by singers.

Rebecca: The level of pain, and blood, sweat, and tears of effort, of time and energy that people who are deaf have gone through in order to be able to speak in some form of intelligible way is never really addressed.

Cherry (speaking Helen Keller’s words): “Since my tenth year, I have labored unceasingly to speak so that others can understand me. I have not succeeded completely in realizing the desire of my childhood to “talk like other people.” Yet I have only partially conquered the hostile silence. It is not a pleasant voice…”

Helen Keller: It is not blindness or deafness that bring me my darkest hours. It is the acute disappointment in not being able to speak normally. Longingly I feel how much more good I may have done, if I had only acquired normal speech. But out of this sorrowful experience I understand more clearly all human striving, thwarted ambitions, and infinite capacity of hope.

Narrator: Throughout the next decades, Keller would lend her name to big causes. She joined the labor union: industrial workers of the world and was in the vanguard of the women’s movement.

Georgina: She was a suffragist. She supported women’s right to vote. Uh. She said somewhere that she saw being female as more of a disability than being deafblind, because women didn’t have the vote.

Rebecca: There’s a defiance in Helen Keller that I have always related to, that resonates so loudly with me. The defiance is that she will not be defined.

Cherry (speaking Helen Keller’s words): “This inferiority of woman is man-made.”

Kim: She knew she was a prominent figure, and that the media would follow her wherever she went. So, she knew that if she went to support striking workers, those striking workers would receive media attention.

Narrator: Newspaper editors, who had previously showered her with praise, were quick to criticize her positions.

Narrator: “Helen Keller preaching on the merits of socialism.” “Helen Keller sneering at the Constitution.” “Helen Keller on these aspects is pitiful”, said one editorial.

Kim: Annie and John were frequently blamed for brainwashing Helen, and for giving her political views.

Cherry (speaking Helen Keller’s words): “There’s a chance for a satirical comment on the phrase “the exploitation of poor Helen Keller.” I don’t like the hypocritical sympathy of such a paper. But I am glad if it knows what the word “exploitation” means.”

Georgina: On the one hand people would say, “Oh, poor Helen Keller. She’s being manipulated by these people around her. They’re putting words in her mouth. You know, she doesn’t know what she’s saying. It’s just terrible. And then the other criticism was, “Well, if someone who’s so defective like this deafblind person can take these positions, that just proves how wrong-minded they are.” So in either case, she’s dismissed. She’s diminished. Her political views are not taken seriously.

Narrator: Keller’s beliefs, her politics and advocacy would at times have to be tempered by the need to earn a living.

Kim: Helen and Annie always struggled with money. They always felt that they needed money to support their household.

Narrator: A big source of income was speaking engagements. The topics were suffrage, blindness, Helen’s education and why she became a socialist.

Cherry (speaking Helen Keller’s words): “We spoke in halls or big, noisy tents full of country folk…”

Narrator: Together they crisscrossed the country. All the while, America was building up its weaponry and getting ready to enter World War I. Keller was fervently opposed.

Cherry (speaking Helen Keller’s words): “I used to wake suddenly from a frightful dream of sweat and blood and multitudes shot, killed, crazed, and go to sleep only to dream of it again. My teacher and I were both worn out. But I determined to do and say my utmost against militarism.”

Narrator: She gave anti-war speeches, and in this one at Carnegie Hall, she took on her critics.

Cherry (speaking Helen Keller’s words): “I know what I am talking about. My sources of information are as good and reliable as anybody else’s. I have papers and magazines from England, France, Germany and Austria that I can read myself. No, I will not disparage the editors. They are an overworked, misunderstood class. Let them remember, though, that if I cannot see the fire at the end of their cigarettes, neither can they thread a needle in the dark.”

Panel Discussion

Rebecca Alexander: Hello everyone, I’m Rebecca Alexander. I am a white woman with dark, long, brown hair. I am wearing a burnt orange sweater, vest sort of thing over a white shirt, and I have a gold necklace with some daggery charms on it. I’m an author, I’m a psychotherapist, a disability rights advocate. And as you just witnessed, I am the narrator of American Masters: Becoming Helen Keller. On behalf of American Masters, The WNET Group, and all of our partner stations, I want to start by giving a very special thanks to the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for their generous support of the film, and for tonight’s event. So it is my great pleasure to be here with all of you. And I’m joined by an extraordinary crew, a group of panelists. Kirk Adams, welcome.

Kirk Adams: Thank you, Rebecca. I am Dr. Kirk Adams. I am the President and CEO of the American Foundation for the Blind. I am a 60 year old white male wearing a blue suit and tie. I have silver hair and I’m in my home office in Seattle.

Rebecca: So we’re also joined by Alexandria Wailes, who through American Sign Language, signed Helen Keller’s words in Becoming Helen Keller. Alexandria?

Alexandria Wailes: Hello everyone. It’s an honor to be a part of this discussion. I’m Alexandria Wailes. I’m a biracial light-skinned woman with dark hair, right now in a high knot. And you can see a few tendrils around my face. I’m wearing a burnt orange sweater with a gray background. And yes, I was involved with the video of Becoming Helen Keller, and I was signing the words of Helen Keller. I’m also a freelance performer, artist, advocate for disability rights as well. Thank you.

Rebecca: Welcome, Alexandria. And rounding out our panel of experts is Kathi Wolfe. Kathi, welcome.

Kathi Wolfe: Thank you. I’m thrilled to be a part of this. So, I’m a white woman in my late sixties. I have silver, short hair and I’m wearing a fabulous t-shirt that a friend gave me from the Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, and I’m a poet and writer, and my most recent poetry collection is “Love and Kumquats”. I’ve been obsessed with dealing with thinking of a push/pull relationship with Helen Keller since I’ve been 10, I think. So thank you.

Rebecca: Thank you, Kathi. And not only will Kathi be sharing her knowledge with us today, but she’s also going to be reading from her recent poetry collection, “Love and Kumquats” as she just mentioned. And I’m really looking forward to hearing it from you directly.

Kathi: Thank you.

Rebecca: Absolutely. So together, we are going to explore the extraordinary life and enduring legacy of the renowned human rights pioneer, Helen Keller. So, one of the things that I’d like to preface this with, is that because all of us have varying degrees of abilities on this panel today, I am now going to take a moment to invert the colors of my screen. And so I’m warning you, you will hear an “Accessibility Options”…

Voice from computer: Accessibility shortcuts.

Rebecca: That’s my gift to you. And interestingly, as I do this…

Voice from computer: Accessibility shortcuts unchecked.

Rebecca: It never happens on the first round. But I never like to hide that, because I think it’s important for people who are not familiar with what those of us with either low vision, or blindness, or hearing loss or deafness, deal with in terms of trying to navigate technology these days. So many of us find that it’s not us actually who are the ones with the issue, but the technology that has not quite come around to accommodate our needs. So I always like to just incorporate this because it’s a very important part of our lives and it’s not something I think we need to hide. So, I want to jump right into it. There was a lot that was uncovered in Becoming Helen Keller. And part of what I thought was so important about this particular biopic documentary, is that we moved away, finally, from this girl at the water pump who had this “aha” moment. That all of a sudden she has access to language and water, and she could make the connection between the two, that we were finally able to see her as a complicated human being, an adult. And so I’m curious, I’m going to direct this first question to you, Kirk, what do you think, as the President and CEO of the American Foundation for the Blind? What do you think one of the biggest messages is, the legacy that Helen Keller has brought to the AFB has been?

Kirk: I really think the work that she accomplished after the age of 65, which we’ve traditionally thought of as the retirement age, and most blind people are over 65, 60% of blind people in the United States are over 65. And if you look at it another way, 16% of Americans over 65 have a visual impairment, and 23% of people over 85 have a visual impairment. And many people who lose their vision toward the end of their working lives leave the workforce, before they necessarily want to, um, have difficulties returning to the workforce, or pivoting careers. But Helen turned 65 in 1945. She was in Germany right after World War II, visiting children who’d been disabled through war injury. Um, she was the United States Goodwill Ambassador to Japan, and in 1948, visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki and developed a wonderful rapport with the Japanese people. In her seventies, she went on a 4,400 mile trip to India, Pakistan, the Middle East, and encouraged communities there to set up schools for blind children and services for blind people. So she was still reshaping the world well into her late seventies and early eighties.

Rebecca: Wonderful. Thanks for that, Kirk. She certainly has a huge, very strong legacy for the AFB and it’s important to recognize that. I want to turn it to Alexandria. Alexandria, one of the really important points that you make during the documentary was Helen Keller and learning about her as you were growing up. And seeing this tremendous influence that she had from Alexander Graham Bell. And you and I both know very well that in the Deaf community, A.G. Bell is not necessarily the most popular person. This oralism that she was exposed to, and this feeling that she had, that she only wished that she could speak better. And you talked about a bit of that conflict of seeing her as a role model, and also seeing so much of the oppression that she faced. What are your thoughts about that?

Alexandria: This is Alexandria signing here. Definitely, now that I’m older and have had more lived experience, I understand better the younger self. And I look at myself, Alexandria in my youth, and see the conflicting message of a role model, whose advocacy I saw in agreement with Alexander Graham Bell’s pursuit of oralism. And for a person who was deaf and blind, thinking that it was more important to speak and to be seen as a human. But I, as a person who is deaf and uses sign language, it was a little complicated. But Helen Keller, there’s so much to her as a person. And we only get glimpses. So I think that the documentary demonstrated so much more about her personal view and how it changed over time. And I do understand where she was coming from. From her surroundings, from the environment that she grew up in, how they advocated for her to fit in amongst her peers. And they were all hearing and speaking. So I do understand that, and yet at the same time, to have that as a role model growing up, gave me pause and really made me think about what that message was in a deeper way. And I think that… It was maybe not as safe for her to disclose her identity as a person who was deaf in addition to being blind.

Rebecca: Thanks Alexandria. One of the things that I often find interesting is that as someone living with Ushers Syndrome, which is the leading genetic cause of deafblindness in the U.S. and around the world, people will often ask me, because I guess they think it’s appropriate, whether it’s harder to go deaf or to go blind. Whether I’d prefer to go deaf or to go blind. And I have experienced, and oftentimes as a psychotherapist and someone who knows many people with vision loss and hearing loss, I’ve often heard people say that they find that it’s much harder to lose your vision, that they would prefer to go blind. And Helen Keller was one of the few people who did not feel that way. She felt that hearing was her biggest misfortune. So I always find that to be interesting. And I very much think that it likely has a lot to do with A.G. Bell and his influence. Kathi, I want to turn this to you because obviously you are a poet. You write beautifully and have been published significantly. And I’m wondering, what is it about Helen Keller that resonates so much with you? What is it about her as a person and her history that influences your writing? Or that you personally can identify with?

Kathi: I think she loved words and language so much, and she loved metaphors and imagery. And she used, as I think the documentary Becoming Helen Keller points out, her imagery sometimes might be sentimental. It might be flowery, but she loved poetry. She loved Walt Whitman. You know, she worshiped the word. And I think that influenced me. Plus she really used her writing to say, this is who I am. You can’t put me in a box. I am going, you know, she was like, I am the captain of my soul. I will, you know, like Walt Whitman, I will sing the body electric. You know, I– I am the song of myself. And I think that’s just so important. And I think, I mean, I’ve been in situations where I had one poetry professor in a poetry workshop say that I could be in his workshop as long as my low vision did not upset the other people too much. I had another poet one time in a workshop say that he just wasn’t used to blind poets. And I think that there’s just something about Helen Keller’s, uh, I want to say tenacity, and also her sense of humor. I mean, at one point people kept saying to her, how dare you? You use images, a lot of colors that sighted people might use as if, you know, seeing and hearing poets haven’t for years used often very sentimental and cliche metaphors about how they think those of us with disabilities see and hear. And at one point, Helen Keller said, look, she wrote to a minister who was, you know, saying to Helen, how can you talk about anything dealing with sight or sound because, you know, you really can’t know anything that you haven’t experienced. And she said to the guy, how dare you dream? No, she said to him, how dare you dream or talk of heaven when you haven’t been there yet? So that’s my take.

Rebecca: And Kathi, as you were speaking, there were a lot of nods around this panel. So I wanted to give you that feedback. I want to take this a step further. You know, one of the things that we learned a lot about, and it often isn’t discussed when it comes to disability, is relationships. Romantic relationships, right? And I know that this can be a very taboo subject. You know, one of the things that happened with Helen Keller is that she spoke out in the Women’s Health Journal about gonorrhea. And there’s this notion that, had she not had a disability, that maybe– That had she not had a disability, that maybe it would not have been accepted, or that people really would have shunned her. But that the idea of having a disability somehow equates asexuality. And so I thought it was really important that this documentary shed some light on her relationship with Peter Fagan, and on the pushback she received from Annie Sullivan, and from her own family. What are some of your thoughts about that? Alexandria, I want to turn it to you and hear your feedback.

Alexandria: This is Alexandria and I’m so glad you brought this up, Rebecca. I think nowadays in 2021, a lot has improved. And yet there’s so much more that still needs to change for the better and stigma of a disabled person having a relationship. I mean, what is that rooted in? Where does that come from? So once society gets beyond the idea and recognizes the importance of having intimate relationships, the importance of being able to just live your life. And learning how emotional that was for Helen Keller and the sacrifice that she had to make for her family, for Annie Sullivan. As a woman, to make that kind of sacrifice with the understanding of the bigger picture. And then she knew as a blind person that the opportunity to tell her story in a women’s magazine would be a safe cushion for people to listen to more. I really appreciate her for seizing that opportunity and being open about it. And the change that she actually helped to shift. I mean, that’s a huge thing she was able to do, but at the same time, I’m so sad for her that she had to choose that kind of sacrifice to satisfy the people in her life. It’s very complicated, a multilayer way of existing, that you can see her as an advocate for so many different kinds of marginalized groups of people. And yet at the same time, be cognizant that she was not fully able to live her own life.

Kirk: Helen was an amazing person with amazing accomplishments. And yet we can see that if she lived in these times of the centennial year of the American Foundation for the Blind, her expectations of her life, I believe, would be much different. She was not an independent traveler, for instance. She loved to travel, she traveled the world. She always used sighted guides, sighted support. She was very much, um, a public figure who was involved in the public, reaching out to the public, interacting with the public raising awareness of blindness, deafness, disability. But her life was also very, very managed. And if you go to afb.org and click on the Helen Keller archive, you will see a lot of tension between what she wanted to do and the things she wanted to say, and the things that the American Foundation for the Blind were comfortable or uncomfortable with her saying. So I believe she would have taken even more, radical positions publicly than she did, but she had a job. She worked for AFB. She was the brand ambassador. She was the primary fundraiser. So, you know, her communications were certainly moderated and modulated by her employer, as well as her family, as well as Anne Sullivan, there were clearly expectations on how she should behave and conduct her life in order to maximize her impacts. But, um, I think, when we look at DeafBlind leaders today, we look at Haben Girma. We look at Jelica Nuccio in Seattle, AJ Granda, the people I know who are leading the ProTactile movement, and such wonderful exemplars of DeafBlind culture. I think Helen would have demanded a somewhat different life were she with us today.

Kathi: This is Kathi. Could I make a comment? I just, what I read about how Annie Sullivan and her family, from what I can read, they apparently didn’t want her to marry Peter Fagan. And I just feel so angry. And then I have to remember, okay, they were living in that time. And as a lesbian, I keep thinking of the parallels, you know, to what we went through in the battle for marriage equality and for interracial marriage. And I can’t help but think that if Helen Keller were here today, that she definitely would have been for marriage equality and interracial marriage. And then I think that even today, though we’ve progressed a lot, you know, sometimes disabled people still run into prejudice in terms of people thinking that. And I want to be careful because asexuality is a sexual orientation, but we run into people who think that all of us are asexual or who can’t conceive that we could be in, you know, in couples or married or be parents.

Rebecca: Mmhm. Kathi, thank you for that feedback. I think that’s an incredible parallel and a very important one to see that as much as we’ve made progress, there still is so, so much that has not changed and so much that we are continuing to fight for in terms of equality for human rights. You know, one of the other things that I’ve found to be particularly interesting was this idea that Annie Sullivan was the door that opened Helen Keller’s world, that without Annie Sullivan, she would be nowhere. That Annie Sullivan was sort of the savior, that without her Helen Keller was completely lost. Now, certainly Annie Sullivan was an incredible mentor and teacher. But I think what happens when we deal with disability is that we often look to the person who is either the interpreter, or the person who is the guide, or the person who is fully sighted, fully hearing, whomever may be assisting the person with the disability as though they are the voice of everyone present. As though they are the voice of the person with the disability. And not only that, as though having a disability means that you are not able to be a support system, that you are not able to be reliable or relied on as someone who can be a confidant or who can be a major part of someone’s life, as more than just the person they are supporting because of their disability. And Kathi, I want to give you an opportunity to speak about that and give your thoughts.

Kathi: I have two thoughts about it. One is that as Annie Sullivan got older, Helen really had to offer her support. Because Annie was, you know, had some illnesses. Annie had some vision loss and Annie had to deal with trying to learn a new type of braille. So it was hard for Annie to accept her vision loss and Helen offered Annie a lot of emotional support. So, and Annie Sullivan was instrumental for Helen, but I think people have Annie as kind of the, what we would think of today as the white savior type of thing. And my second thought is, I think that’s true for all… I wouldn’t say all, but for many of us with disabilities. In my own life, when my late partner was dying of stage 4 cancer, I would go with Anne to the ER. And they would think that I was the one who was sick and that Anne was caring for me, because they saw my cane and I was blind. So that’s just one example of what you’re talking about.

Rebecca: So I’m wondering, what would you like people to know today? And as it relates to Helen Keller, and as it relates to being someone with a disability, what would you want people to know about the relationships? What is different about being someone with a disability and having a relationship with someone who either does not have a disability, or who is somewhat more of a guide or a leader? What is it that has commonly been the misconception and that you think is something that oftentimes goes overlooked or unrecognized, and is particularly significant or meaningful or different?

Kathi: I think people tend to think in some ways as if folks with disabilities, as if we’re not fully human. As if we don’t have emotions or can’t think, or can’t express ourselves recently, and it happens– It’s just baked into the culture. A friend of mine, who’s a good guy, took me to get my first COVID shot. And he kept referring to me when we were at the clinic where I was getting my shot. He kept referring to me in the third person. He would say to the staffer, oh, “These are her papers,” or “I’m taking her to be vaccinated.”

Rebecca: So, Kathi, I just wanted to go back to this piece because I want to be sure that people today, you know, part of what we’re also doing is in continuing Helen Keller’s legacy, is teaching people today. What still needs to continue to progress and be understood about how we treat people with disabilities? Of how we think about people with disabilities, and you mentioned that this friend of yours, this gentleman who brought you to get your first COVID shot. When you were brought up to the counter or to the desk or whatever it was, spoke about you and the third person. And I asked you what your preference was, how you would want to handle that situation, or how you would want others to handle that situation. And I want you to respond to that again, if you don’t mind, just to make sure that we hear, what would make you most comfortable as a blind person?

Kathi: I think it would make me the most comfortable if people would allow me to speak. And sometimes because people so often dehumanize us, people with disabilities, it’s so often a staff person might just automatically turn to someone who’s assisting us as a sighted guide or whatever, and speak to them. And so sometimes our friend or whoever is with us, maybe it would be helpful if they would kind of, instead of immediately, when the staff person says, “Do you have her papers?” If the person would not answer and allow me to say, “Hi, here are my papers,” and allow me to hand it to the staffer. So sometimes it’s kind of waiting a beat so the person with a disability can speak. Sometimes it can be almost not quite having to be rude, but sometimes it can mean if you’re a non-disabled person, friend with a disabled person, sometimes maybe not giving… If you’re with a sales clerk or a, you know, a server in a restaurant who was talking about a disabled person in the third person, maybe not giving the server eye contact, maybe stepping back. I once went shopping with a non-disabled friend who looked nothing like me. And she was not at all my size. And I was trying on a skirt and the sales clerk kept asking my friend how the skirt fit. And finally, my friend just had to leave because we were never going to get me fitted.

Rebecca: Thanks Kathi. So, Alexandria, sure.

Alexandria: Thank you, Rebecca. This is Alexandria here. I’d like to add to Kathi’s comment. And I’m glad we’re discussing this because deaf people, unfortunately as a deaf person, it’s very much part of my experience that I’m always accompanied by someone. And I think that there’s an issue of intersectionality here, that you have an individual. So the more difference there is, you really recognize this. I went out to a restaurant with two hearing friends recently, and we were having a conversation at the table and the three of us were signing. The server, who knew that I was not using my voice, tried to take my order from one of my friends. And I had to educate them on the spot to interact with me, to talk directly to me. And I find this on a daily basis, in any situation. I am constantly educating because if I don’t, then who else will they encounter? The next deaf person they encounter, they’re going to do the same thing. So I think it’s really important to give space to people to recognize what they don’t know. They don’t know what they don’t know. So the opportunities are there for education and explanation so that we can try to shift these old habits. And for people who don’t identify with having a disability, the importance of allyship and being an ally, I mean, empowering the person with you. Empowering the other people in the room, and giving them the permission to take that power, because there’s a lot of fear and just not knowing that is out there. And I think that it’s very helpful too, that the person with a disability can navigate and know the people around them and understand that there’s support that can be given, and make a collective shift towards how people are experiencing. (Interrupting audio, unclear) Then there’s a lot to deal with in the hospital as Kathi experienced, and even in the sales room. Unfortunately until more people adjust their levels of understanding and become more open to admitting that they don’t understand or they don’t have that lived experience. Because that admission alone shows a level of courage that we need to actually continue the education process, because we want to make the space safe for people across the table, across the aisle, across the cultures, just to be able to interact and understand how to include more ways of being in their world. This is really happens every day, unfortunately.

Kirk: Well, I’m thinking about inclusion and diversity, equity and inclusion, and now I’m starting to hear diversity, equity and belonging. So I think it’s a mindset of, how do we include everybody in our society so they can bring their best selves forward and be part of the community? How do we create a sense of belonging for people? And I think that requires intentionality, a mindset shift. I believe that it’s very, very rare that a person is intentionally cruel or mean spirited around me and my disability. But I know there’s a profound lack of awareness of the realities of blindness, what a blind person can do, what kind of tools we use, what kind of technology we use. And I think that’s just a lack of proximity. So documentaries like this one, um, I hope that some people watching it will get a better sense of what it means to be disabled, to be deaf or blind, DeafBlind, and what it might mean to be inclusive of people with those characteristics. You know, I often say when I speak to audiences, I’ll say, “Is anyone in this room under five foot two?” And then someone will, there’ll be someone who says yes. And I will say, “So if there’s an item on a shelf that’s eight feet tall, you cannot reach up and grab that. You’re going to need to get a tool like a step ladder. You’re going to need to find a tall friend, to partner with you to get that done.” And that’s the same as being a blind person. If I’m in a meeting and I have my financial statements in braille in front of me, I’m not in a disabling situation. If you hand me a stack of print, I’m in a disability situation, because I’m not able to access that information. So, you know, just the realization that the world and not surprisingly so, is constructed, um, by sighted people, for sighted people primarily, and that blind people, in order to operate in this world need to do things somewhat differently, use some different tools than you might use. I think that kind of mindset is really helpful. And again, I think thoughtfulness around being inclusive and asking, it’s wonderful when a person– airports are probably the most challenging, uh, situations that I’m in regularly. If a person just says, “Hey, I saw you are traveling with your cane. Might I offer some directions or some assistance?” And sometimes it’s gratefully accepted and sometimes it’s a polite “No, thank you. I’ve got it.” So I think just, um, being open, asking the person with the disability what kind of support might be helpful to them? Being gracious if the support offered is not accepted.

Rebecca: So Kirk, one of the questions that I posed to both Kathi and Alexandria was about this notion of being someone with a disability, and how we’re treated by others. Oftentimes, for instance with Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, what many people didn’t know was that Annie Sullivan herself was visually impaired, but that she was often seen as sort of the savior, as the one who brought Helen to life. And without her, Helen would have been nowhere. And so my question is, what role is it that you think stereotypically people think about people with disabilities in terms of their relationships with other people? Because oftentimes it feels like people with disabilities, our stereotype is the ones who need help, that they can not be the support system or that they may not be the resource. I often say that, you know, when someone sees me on the corner using my cane, I suspect that I am the very last person they’re going to ask for directions. And yet I know my area and the corner I’m standing on better than anyone. And so I’m wondering what your feelings are, what your thoughts are about the dynamic between Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, and how Helen was seen in relation to Annie and how you think people see people with disabilities today?

Kirk: Well, you’re exactly right, Rebecca. If you’re ever lost in a big city, ask the nearest blind person, and if they live there, they will know where they are and they’ll be able to give you directions. But you used the word “stereotype” a couple of times. And I think that’s exactly right. And back to proximity, most people do not interact regularly with people with disabilities. And the information they have about people with disabilities is very fragmented. It’s from the media, it’s from movies, it’s from books, it’s from “Little House on the Prairie” where Mary sat by the fire and didn’t get to go to school. And Laura came home and told her about the lessons she’d had that day. So, um, oftentimes when people encounter individuals with disabilities and don’t have experience, they’re going to go to stereotypes. And there’s a couple, one is that the person with a disability is a broken person who is less capable, needs assistance, needs assistance. You know, often infantilized, you know, I’m the CEO of AFB, I’ve got a doctorate, I’m capable. I have a home, a family, and, you know, people will offer me assistance as if I’m a young child from time to time. And then there’s another stereotype about the superhero or, uh, you know, blind person, person with another disability is a super achiever, has super extraordinary senses. Can overcome any challenge. And the fact of the matter is that people with disabilities are people and the disabling, uh, the impairment, sometimes it’s a disabling condition, sometimes it’s not, but the impairment is just the characteristics like any characteristic, like being tall or short, or being able to run fast, or being left-handed or right-handed. You know, it’s somewhat amplified in the fact that we need to adapt and, and be more resilient and more flexible perhaps, than most people in the general population. But the bottom line is we’re people, Helen Keller was a person, Annie Sullivan was a person. They were making their way in the world the best they could. They had an amazing partnership. They were amazing allies of one another. They made so much dramatic, significant change in the world together. And bottom line, they were people who had aspirations, who had ambition, who wanted to make change, and they did it.

Rebecca: So one of the things, Alexandria, that you mentioned, was this constant education that happens on a daily basis of always having to make it a teachable moment. And I find for myself, as someone who identifies as little “d”, “b”, little deafblind, meaning that I became deafblind later. And oftentimes, even for this very film, it was questioned whether I was deafblind enough to do this film, that people don’t understand that even for the very purpose of doing this documentary and being on this panel, I’m wearing my cochlear implants. And without them, I am completely deaf. And my preference is to be deaf and to sign, that I prefer that more than anything. That the silence of being deaf is my sort of religion. And yet this is what I do to make myself most accessible to the world. But I use this as an example, because I think that it requires so much patience from us as people with disabilities, but also with people who do not have disabilities to be willing to be uncomfortable. To be willing to learn. To find more comfort in discomfort with what is unfamiliar. And I’m wondering what some of your thoughts are, because you’re right. It does feel oftentimes like every day is about teachable moments and wanting to create a pleasant exchange or experience with people who are not disabled, so that they will be more kind or treat people with disabilities as the humans that they are, and not look down upon them or feel in some way like they should feel pity or feel sorry for them. So I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

Alexandria: This is Alexandria signing. I think so much of the interactions are based on individuals, and sometimes you have to use tough love or tough lessons as part of that education. And there are some people who may not be interested or willing. And so then I, for lack of a better word, you engage in the battle. Maybe not that day, maybe that day, it’s just not going to happen. But the most important thing that we need to remind ourselves is that each person can be wide open to understanding and accessing the tools and the resources through interactions. I use a hearing aid, and right now I’m communicating in sign language with my hearing aid off. I have the interpreter, Stephanie, who is speaking my words into English. So we have resources that allow me to be part of this discussion, and each individual has their own resources. So the question is, how do we acknowledge a person that we’ve just met, and we don’t know? But we see what we can do through our interaction. And my patience has been tested many times at a great many levels. It’s just, I can only come from Alexandria’s perspective. I’m an artist and I’ve danced since I was two or three. And the stage is my second home. I am very comfortable with thinking outside the box. I’m accustomed to the variety of interactions that can be held. And I know this is my personal privilege as the individual I am. I’ve had the luxury of accessibility to art and creativity and different languages. So yes, and I try to recognize how I can adapt myself to engage with the spaces that I’m in with others. As I mentioned earlier, when I meet someone and I can tell right off, they’ve never met a deaf person before, but you can also get a sense of, alright, I am very much willing to try to engage with this person, and give them the opportunity to see themselves and allow themselves to be uncomfortable and be in that space together. And once we cross that threshold, that’s a win, that’s a way of offering a better opportunity for further engagement. So I think that, I mean, sometimes I forget myself as Alexandria. Sometimes I’m a little bit too much engaged as the teacher, and sometimes I have too much patience and I have to remind myself that, no, maybe not today. And it just reminds us that we’re all human and we have different boundaries. And you do you, you be who you are as that human being in your own individual journey. We’re all very fortunate to share this journey together. And sometimes we find through connections what allyship looks like. I’m a sighted person. So I think about those who are DeafBlind. And I think, how do we broaden what life looks like through this journey? What art looks like? And how can we bring in more perspectives, bring them into the room, bring more shared experiences into the room. And of course, we’ve got a long way to go, but it excites me that there’s an enthusiasm and passion about recognizing the lived experience. And that’s what keeps me going.

Rebecca: Kirk, I want to take a moment just to give you an opportunity.

Kirk: Sure Rebecca, and I think part of it is, as was mentioned earlier, choosing your battles, it depends on your role. My job is to improve the lives of blind people in America, and that means changing systems, and changing perceptions, and raising awareness. So it’s my job to educate people about disability and opportunity for inclusion and barriers to inclusion. I know lots of blind people whose day job is a lot different, who might be a chemist or an attorney or a teacher or an engineer, and it’s not their job to educate the public. How they choose to do that is certainly up to them. I don’t believe there’s any obligation to educate individuals. It’s a part of the process of furthering inclusion. It’s a good thing to do, but I think people should be allowed to pick and choose when and if they take advantage of a teachable moment to raise awareness for another individual. I think by the same token, as mentioned earlier, people without disabilities, obviously not obligated to try to learn about disabilities. We would hope that people would want to do that. And in the spirit of understanding humanity, creating a more inclusive society and, being authentic in their curiosity and respectful in allowing everyone to proceed with dignity.

Rebecca: So in wrapping up here, there’s no way for us to cover all of the incredible work of Helen Keller. Of how nuanced her life was, of how complicated she was, of how much about Helen Keller we never knew or learned, because of what was considered to be socially acceptable or appropriate at the time. And I’m wondering, one of the things you mentioned Alexandria, was this intersectionality, you know, Kathi, you mentioned that you’re a lesbian. I don’t know if you identify that way or queer. I saw somewhere in one of the articles I read about you, that you identify as queer. So I want to be respectful of your identification. But I think that it is so important for us to be able to have this intersectionality and to develop the confidence and pride that comes with being “other”. And Helen Keller really was “other”. And yet, she didn’t make that her shortcoming. She didn’t use that as an excuse to hide. In fact, she used her “otherness” as her strength. And I’d love to hear from you, what quality, or if there’s something in particular about Helen that really you find to be most touching? That resonates most with you as someone who is blind or someone who is deaf?

Kirk: I think it’s just her burning, steadfast commitment to social justice, and her understanding that all people who suffer from systemic oppression share common dynamics and common goals. She sent money to the striking textile workers. Again, in our Helen Keller archives, correspondence with the NAACP as they were formed. She was concerned about workers. She was concerned about women’s suffrage. She was concerned about systemic oppression of People of Color. Of course, her strongest identification and platform was around the systemic oppression of people with disabilities, but she cared about everybody, and bringing people into the circle, and making everyone feel included and that they belonged. And she lived and breathed that her entire life. And we are so fortunate that for 44 years of that social justice passion, she was a part of the American Foundation for the Blind.

Rebecca: Kathi, go ahead.

Kathi: For me, I think Helen had an incredible sense of pride in who she was and in what she believed in. And I also think that way before anybody was talking about intersectionality, she lived it. Because she, you know, she was concerned not just with disability, but with feminism, with what we would call today, being anti-racism, you know, she was a co-founder of the ACLU. So I guess her intersectionality and her sense of pride really resonate with me, because I use queer and lesbian interchangeably. But I mean, I’m happy with being called anything except late for dinner. But for me, that just helps me as a poet and artist and writer and person, her sense of pride just really resonates with me and energizes me.

Rebecca: Alexandria..I wanna give you an opportunity…to share here.

Alexandria: And this is Alexandria here. I really think that Helen Keller had a wicked sense of humor. And I think that’s just fantastic. That resonates with me. And also what impressed me was her level of compassion for others throughout her journey. Especially as an adult, it struck me that that’s something I really admire, that level of commitment to uplifting and promoting others. She was fierce. She had a fighting spirit inside and she was not afraid to speak out, share her thoughts. Yeah.

Rebecca: So unfortunately that is all of the time that we have for tonight for this discussion. And of course, I hope that we continue to have these discussions. I want to turn the floor over to Kathi Wolfe for the opportunity to share her poem, “Dancing with Martha Graham”, from her recent poetry collection “Love and Kumquats”, Kathi.

Kathi: So, Martha Graham choreographed a dance for Helen Keller, and my poem, “Dancing with Martha Graham”, Helen Keller is speaking. She’s thinking the poem. And it’s my imagining what Helen Keller might’ve felt as she was dancing with Martha Graham’s dance troupe.
Dancing with Martha Graham
Flying is only for the Gods I think,
Until you hold me so close
Your sweat becomes mine
My sandals barely touch the ground
My silk dress melts
Into your organza gown
You twirl me like a pixelated top
And I fly
Quick as teletype
Smooth as a martini
On a Summer’s night
Beyond sound
Beyond sight.

Rebecca: Thank you, Kathi. So I want to give a huge thank you to our American Sign Language interpreters, Stephanie Feyne and JaRon Gilchrist. Thank you so much for being here with us. On behalf of The WNET Group, of Alabama Television… On behalf of The WNET Group, Alabama Public Television, Iowa PBS, WCNY, WFYI, WGCU Public Media, WQED, WQLN Public Media, and WXXI, I want to thank all of you. I want to thank our audience and everyone who participated. Thank you for joining us.

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