Tag Archives: Helen Keller

Distantism and Exclusion: Thoughts from the Deaf and Deaf-Blind


Debbie says:

I was not aware of deaf-blind poet John Lee Clark until the amazing jesse-the-k posted this quotation from him.

Each form of social bigotry has its distinctive personality and its unique set of intertwining evils. So I would like to dwell on the concept of distantia, or a standing apart, which lies at the heart of distantism. We already have a Protactile* word that describes people who pull away from touch, who refuse to connect. It is an attitude and a behavior. Many hearing and sighted societies prize it highly, and their members seek to maintain physical distance, however thin those margins may be. Their rulers and heroes stand alone–the more remote they are, the more highly esteemed they are. Even when the less privileged are squeezed closer together due to poverty, exploitation, or as punishment, distantism manifests itself in the long lines, tight cells or dubicles, and above all, their being removed out of sight and hearing. For all the hype around its ability to connect the world, technology has often served to isolate people in every other way.

The first sentence is worth enshrining on city plaques and statues (after all, we’re going to need some new ones.)

For the rest, I do not 100% agree with him about technology and distance (I don’t 100% disagree either). The rest of it rings so true to me, at least in the U.S.: we are so committed to physical distance, to the remoteness of “rulers and heroes.” He doesn’t quite say that the close quarters of “poverty, exploitation [and] punishment” are part of the ways we revere distance, but he surely implies it.  Lots more of his thoughts about distantism at the link, including ever-crucial thoughts about deaf-blind as teachers of the deaf-blind. Nothing about us without us.

I hadn’t thought about The Miracle Worker in years, if not decades. Just having the title pop into my mind in 2017, when I was reading this, I could instantly see the way I would critique that work now (even though I loved it as a child). For those who don’t know it, it’s a play and film from 1963 and movie about Anne Sullivan, who taught Helen Keller. The play is based on the autobiography of Keller, but centers Sullivan. Keller was the world’s most famous deaf-blind person, and a strong political activist: in the 1950s, I didn’t know what was wrong with making the story about Anne Sullivan. But I do now.


Before I got around to blogging this, jesse-the-k added another layer by linking to Matthew Rodriguez’ “A Sign of Trouble: The HIV Crisis in the Deaf Community.” This article discusses high HIV rates among Deaf people, and tells a couple of stories, including this horrifying one:

In July 2016, [Darrin] Smith, who identifies as black, gay and deaf, presented to a doctor seeking pre-exposure prophylaxis. Despite his knowledge of PrEP, the HIV infections rates in the black queer community and his willingness to take the drug, one thing stood in his way: a hearing doctor. The doctor told Smith that Deaf people should not be having sex.

“I was upset, I was angry,” Smith told INTO. “Just because I’m deaf does not mean I’m broken. It does not mean I cannot function as a normal human being.”

Let’s be clear. There is absolutely no reason why a Deaf person should not have whatever kind of sex he/she/they want, and absolutely no reason a Deaf person should not have access to PrEP.

Those in the community realize that this complicated problem requires complicated solutions. Smith and [deaf HIV-positive man Matthew] Byrd both expressed the deaf community itself need more education about the ways that race, sexuality and HIV status intersect with their hearing status.

“It’s really hard to talk about these things. It’s hard because there’s a layer of racism, there’s a layer of homophobia,” Smith said. “There’s a level of intersectionality that has to be talked about.”

Byrd said that dealing with HIV stigma among the deaf community has meant there are few spaces where he can be himself.

“The only place I feel that there’s any kind of mutual respect is the deaf, gay, POZ community,” he said. However, Byrd said, they have no national HIV organization to foster community or educate others.

Thinking about the struggle of Deaf people to get reasonable HIV care leads back to distantism. Intersectionality, such a buzzword for the last several years, speaks to at least acknowledging, if not addressing, distantism. The HIV medical community must acknowledge the specific needs of Deaf people, and bring Deaf educators under its umbrella, just as all of us need to acknowledge the places where we use distantism to keep other people away from the resources, care, and agency they need.

Thanks, Jesse-the-K!



Helen Keller: Joking Matters

Debbie says:

Helen Keller jokes have been around for decades, since well before the real Helen Keller died in 1968. A little Googling tells me that they’ve gotten nastier in the intervening decades, as jokes in general have also gotten nastier.

In case anyone doesn’t have the backstory, Helen Keller was blind and deaf from before she was two years old. This rendered her effectively completely incommunicado with the world, until Anne Sullivan came to teach her, and found a way to get language through to her. Keller went on to be a peace activist, a Socialist, and a Wobbly (a member of the International Workers of the World), and lived to be almost 88.

Keller and Sullivan’s story was made famous in a deeply romanticized play, The Miracle Worker, which has also been made into more than one movie.

Now, advice columnist Dan Savage has written Miracle!, a campy drag retelling of The Miracle Worker in which a butch therapist named Annie trains a deaf, blind and mute drag prodigy, Helen Stellar.

According to this review and others, the play is “awash in Keller jokes, gritty repartee and sexually graphic (though clothed and wigged) routines.” Savage pulls many of his laughs from simplistic gags like having Helen Stellar trip, fall, and bellow. And, apparently, in the end the story also shows some sweetness.

Savage does a lot of good work. He made me cry a couple of months ago when I heard the radio version of his story of his mother’s death. And despite all of the legitimate critiques of the “It Gets Better” project, I’m a fan of what Savage and his husband Terry Miller are doing with it.

All I have to say about the play is that 1) I have no desire whatsoever to see it; and 2) I’m always sorry when someone as clever and potentially thoughtful as Savage can’t thinking of anything fresher or more interesting than cheap shots at easy targets.

His play (or at least Shakesville’s post about it) got me thinking about Helen Keller jokes.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, when I was a kid, I never thought Helen Keller were funny. I devoured stories about disabled people–I had a fascination with understanding what their lives were like, and (though completely sighted and hearing) I was too identified with Helen Keller to see any funny side.

The briefest glance through Google makes it clear that everyone who tells these jokes, or collects them on a website, is on some level aware of the inherent cruelty. Many of the websites start with warnings, or disclaimers, or criticisms of “political correctness.” One joke I found almost funny is “Why is it okay to tell Helen Keller jokes? Because she can’t hear them anyway.” Notice the implication that if she could hear it, the joker would have second thoughts about telling it.

After a lifetime of people-watching, I understand better the sense of protective magic we get from laughing at the things we are most afraid of, using humor and crudity to ward off of the fear that it could happen to us. This goes hand in hand with an undeniable delight in topping one crudeness with another; my Helen Keller joke (or my “That’s what she said,” joke, or whatever) is cruder or nastier than the one you just told. It’s a lot easier to top the last speaker with crudeness and nastiness than with humor.

If a sense of protective magic is the “heads” side of the Helen Keller-joke coin, dehumanization is the “tails” side. We don’t want to be Helen Keller. We want to keep our eyes and our ears, if we have them now. So we engage in a process of making her so completely “other” that no joke is too cruel, or crass. (This is not specific to Helen Keller jokes by any means–it’s true of jokes about women, about African Americans, about the people from the other side of the river. Keller is no more than a good example.)

And here’s the catch, inherent in the “she can’t hear them” punchline. She could hear them. Not with her ears. But if she hadn’t learned to “hear,” we wouldn’t know about her; she’d have died invisible and incommunicado. And people with similar disabilities can “hear” the jokes now, hear themselves being othered, and demumanized, and snickered at. The real protective magic is to understand that those of us who can see and hear are lucky, that our luck can go away at any time, and that there’s room in the world for people who can see and hear, people who can do one and not the other, people who can do neither. We don’t have to laugh at each other to recognize the places where we’re lucky.

Telling Helen Keller jokes armors us against having to confront our own luck and our own vulnerability. It also erases Keller’s lifetime of activism and passion, making her into a blind-deaf caricature and not a person. The soppy romanticism of The Miracle Worker does the same thing. Where’s the play (or novel or movie) about who she really was and what she accomplished?

Dan Savage, are you up to the task?