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Helen Keller documentary illuminates a hidden history

Filmmaker Laurie Block uses the deafblind icon's life to show how attitudes toward people with disabilities have evolved over the last century.

Helen Keller and Polly Thomson speak to a thousand-plus crowd, Japan, 1948. Image courtesy of the American Foundation for the Blind archives.

The name “Helen Keller” sparks instant recognition for many, but few understand her life story and historic role in the broader context of disability history. By highlighting that history in her latest documentary, “Becoming Helen Keller,” filmmaker Laurie Block hopes to correct that imbalance.

“In print biographies and film stories about Keller, it’s mentioned that Helen is very interested in the political events and social issues of her own day,” said Block. “But her role as a celebrated public figure was sometimes controversial, and how her messages were interpreted by others reveals an enormous amount about the evolution of general public attitudes towards people with disabilities.”

Block’s film, which is still in production, will be broadcast on PBS as part of the network’s “American Masters” series.

Recently, Perkins caught up with Block – who is producing, directing and co-writing the film – to learn more about the project.

You say you want to “reclaim” Helen Keller’s story. What does that mean?

I first came to the idea of focusing on Helen Keller because she was somebody everybody knew. She’s practically folklore in our society. Of course there’s the film “The Miracle Worker” and the play, which is one of the most common community theater productions nationwide. But there are also tons of Helen Keller jokes, there’s a hip-hop song about her that’s kind of raunchy, there’s a “South Park” Helen Keller musical. I thought, how might this change if I work on a biography film about Helen Keller that places her in the context of the historical experiences of people with disabilities?

Why is it important to explore that history?

There are more than 6 million kids with disabilities in mainstream K-12 classrooms in the United States but there’s almost nothing taught in those classes about the historic experience of people with disabilities. And yet those kids and their families use all kinds of services, legal tools and resources that have a history. If we don’t teach that history to everyone as part of civic engagement – why those programs came to be, how we built knowledge about early childhood intervention, alternative education, how we’ve developed assistive technologies, why we have laws related to these things – our society as a whole will have a thinner understanding of the world.

What does disability history look like in our country?

In higher education, disability history is a relatively new field, a subset of disability studies. Among the broader public, it’s hardly recognized. It is often hard to convey to present-day audiences the profound disrespect for the value of the lives of people with disabilities that prevailed in the first half of the 20th century. There’s a reason FDR did not talk publicly about his disability. Like Keller, he came of age at a time when eugenic ideologies had a grip not only on the American imagination, but on the world’s. This documentary tries to address Keller’s role and life experiences in that context. The history is central to her story.  

What role has Perkins played in the creation of the film?

I’ve been working in the Perkins Archives on and off for nearly 16 years. Perkins isn’t the only archive with material about Helen Keller, but it has many unique and intimate aspects of the story and its key characters. For instance, Perkins has all these letters, hundreds of them, from Nella Braddy Henney, and most people have no idea who she is. But she’s a central character in Keller’s story, and in our movie. Additionally, the archives – especially the scrapbooks, which have dozens of clipped newspaper stories pasted in chronologically – helped me understand how certain aspects of Keller’s story acquired national media attention. They let us anchor the parts of her story that have flourished in pop culture in what was really happening at the time.

What will people take away from this project about Keller herself?

Everybody knows the Miracle Worker story, but that takes place in the first three weeks after Anne Sullivan arrived in Alabama!  It’s really just the beginning of Keller’s story. Helen Keller worked actively into her late 70s on behalf of the human rights and welfare of Americans and of people around the globe. There’s not a lot of work that frames her whole life in a contemporary world-view. This film will.

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