Header graphic credit: left to right: Polly Thomson, Anne Sullivan Macy, Helen Keller,
Charlie Chaplin, 1918: Courtesy American Foundation for the blind

A movie in the making

Becoming Helen Keller is a two-hour film biography our guest writer Laurie Block is producing for the prestigious PBS series American Masters. The creation of this upcoming movie and how Laurie came to be the producer is inspiring.

From producer Laurie Block…I am often asked how I came to be doing this film. Was I a Helen Keller fan? I’ve become one over the years I’ve worked on this project, but to be honest, at first I didn’t know what I thought about Keller. I came to her initially because I thought her story was a strong way to draw viewers into the past experiences of people with disabilities in the decades before ADA, and that looking into this past would help make visible why civil rights policy for people with disabilities was a necessary step towards guaranteeing full citizenship and inclusion of this community in all aspects of our national life.

L to R – Keller as a child-1888, Keller at 18–1898, (Perkins School for the Blind); Keller with shrub–circa 1924, Keller in Japan on a train–1948, (American Foundation for the Blind); Keller reading in her Connecticut home–1965 (American Foundation for the Blind)

The next question is, ‘Why Keller?’ Why the American Masters series? Everyone knows Helen Keller’s name, her basic story, the legendary meeting with Anne Sullivan, probably a couple of the many Helen Keller jokes. If you’re under 40, you’ll remember the South Park episode called Helen Keller The Musical. Younger than that, and you might have danced to a raunchy Helen Keller-themed number called Don’t Trust Me (“Do the Helen Keller… talk with your hips”). Most people grew up with a kind of folk tale version of Keller, learned in grammar school and not revised since. I think the American Masters staff recognized that Keller persists as an American icon, but they too were curious to understand her story anew. Providing a fresh take about who we are as a nation, how diverse the American experience can be, through the biographies of notable citizens is what this prestigious PBS series has done again and again.

I came to Keller’s story because I belong to the first generation of women whose child – one of twins — was diagnosed with a significant disability before birth. That was 30 years ago, and the twins are now adults, each living independently. Doing disability history is how I navigated the complex network of attitudes about and services for people with disabilities that I encountered both as a pregnant woman and during the years of raising the kids – attitudes that surprised and sometimes angered me, and that I learned had deep roots.

Before becoming a mom, I worked as a film researcher and a co-scriptwriter with my husband, John Crowley, a novelist and teacher of creative writing at Yale. When I returned to work, I turned my focus to the history of people with disabilities. I studied and made film and radio work about how different generations understood who is labeled as fit, who is not, and by what criteria. I explored how policy and legislation related to the disability community worked or didn’t, how the disability rights movement arose and why. My ongoing web project about these issues can be found at www.disabilitymuseum.org.

My children were in middle school when I first began working with Keller’s life and legacy. Not long into the research process, I realized that to reclaim Keller’s story from its mythology, I would need to make visible what the experiences of people with disabilities living during Keller’s time were like across racial and class lines. Setting Keller’s life story into historical context, including the experiences disabled people had in her own era, is something no previous film, no biographer of her, has done.

Disability history is not about the diseases or the circumstances that cause an impairment. Though some aspects of medical history are pertinent: disability history is social history. It’s about the intersections of policy and personal experience, how individuals with disabilities interact with the environment (physical, political, and cultural) over time. And like women’s or immigrant history, disability history provides a lens that reveals structures and systems of influence not otherwise visible. A good example of how that lens works is our changed understanding of FDR and his disability. All biographers mention his polio, and many note that he was a creator of the March of Dimes, but only in the 1990s with the help of disability historians and advocates did they begin discussing how FDR’s disability was central to his experience and vision as a leader.

Helen Keller graduated from Radcliffe-Harvard in the same year FDR did, 1904. Typically, her tale has been told within the framework of those who “overcome” their disability. Yet being deaf and blind was central to her identity, the details of her daily life, how she understood the problems of her day, how she knew the world. It’s time to reclaim her story, revision it afresh.

                                                                               H.Keller graduation credit Courtesy A. G. Bell Association

Like many other college-educated women of her era, Keller chose to play a role in the struggles for social change. Why? What opportunities did she pick for herself once she was an adult in need of earning a living? Keller’s agency is what interests me most. I wanted to know how she used her renown for causes and purposes of interest to her—income inequality, education, employment training for people with disabilities, women, the poor, women’s suffrage, Social Security, and disabled veterans of two World Wars. Keller was not a policy wonk, but a messenger reporting about the needs of those that various policies would serve. She knew she could draw crowds wherever she went, and as a public figure she bluntly spoke her mind on many of the issues just mentioned.

Who were her allies, her friends, foes? Where did she feel she succeeded? What did she fail to do? What was it like to be a disabled, articulate, beautiful woman advocating for people with disabilities in an era dominated by eugenic ideology? These are some of the questions the film addresses. Keller visited 25 state legislatures in person, making an appeal for them to establish services to serve people with vision loss, hearing loss, war-related disabilities, the provision of assistive technology and public-health blindness prevention. As a young adult, she was a lot like Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel prize winning advocate for women’s education from Pakistan. Like Malala, Helen Keller embodied the issues she expressed as critical, lobbying the public tirelessly to provide education and employment and to treat with dignity all persons.

Eleanor Roosevelt & Helen Keller, 1955: Courtesy American Foundation for the Blind

In the Cold War years, with the support of the US State Dept. and several NGOs (Non-governmental Organizations), Keller would tour 37 countries as the first US Goodwill Ambassador—Egypt, Israel, South Africa, Mexico, Jordan, Brazil, and more, until her seventies. Often she was sent only when some notable conflict was happening, had happened, or was just about to occur. Her mission was diplomatic, a hopeful presence advocating the possibilities of peaceful solutions to grave problems.

How did Helen Keller sustain her steadfast faith in the goodness of humanity? That faith, its unwavering character, her indomitable spunk—that steadfast faith of hers is how I came to love her. In these volatile times, it is really a remarkable example. Helen Keller’s story, put into the context of our nation’s history, is an important and fresh tale to tell all Americans, young and old alike.

As every independent film-maker knows, raising production money is a huge part of the work. We’ve had great support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and several small foundations, and right now we’re running a Kickstarter campaign to bring in necessary funding to complete the rough cut of the full two hours. So I’m thinking about Helen Keller and how she communicated with audiences all the time – she was a champion marathon fundraiser!

Our Kickstarter campaign goal of $45,000 will let us complete the edit of a full rough cut so that we can raise the final funding from foundations that help to bring independent films to their intended audiences. This film, once finished, will go around the globe, following Keller’s footsteps. We hope you can help, and thank you in advance.

Ginny and I are so inspired by this effort that we have donated to the Kiickstarter campaign. We hope you will consider joining us.

View the trailer and the Kickstarter page.