When we think of Helen Keller (1880-1968) the image we may have of her is of an extremely courageous individual who achieved much that was thought to be beyond her reach, as someone who was deafblind from the age of 19 months. Her story is most widely known through the play and movie The Miracle Worker, which depicts how Keller’s teacher, Anne Sullivan, broke through Keller’s isolation and inability to communicate.
However her official story often stops there. Politicians shamelessly use it as an illustration of how anyone can overcome their limitations through hard work and determination. In other words, if you have a disability and don’t succeed the fault is your own, not due to any discrimination or lack of access.
But if we dig a little deeper into Keller’s trajectory we can see that she herself rejected this facile positioning of herself as a shining example of the “good” disabled person. Keller was able to attend college and became a gifted public speaker, writer and activist, joining the US Socialist Party in 1909 and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1912.
She was able to attend school, partly because of her middle class background and the fact that she had wealthy benefactors. Keller came to see that not everyone had the same opportunities: “I had once believed that we are all masters of our fate - that we could mould our lives into any form we pleased... But as I went more and more about the country I learned that I had spoken with assurance on a subject I knew little about. I forgot that I owed my success partly to the advantages of my birth and environment. Now, however, I learned that the power to rise in the world is not within the reach of everyone.”
Keller also saw how quickly the mainstream media and politicians abandoned her as their poster child for disability when she became more politically outspoken. A newspaper editor who had previously fawned over Keller as an example of courage and perseverance changed his tune when she began to identify herself with radical causes, writing that her “mistakes sprung out of the manifest limitations of her development.” Keller didn’t hesitate to expose his hypocrisy: “the compliments he paid me were so generous that I blush to remember them. But now that I have come out for socialism he reminds me and the public that I am blind and deaf and especially liable to error.”
Keller’s work with other blind individuals also led her to question the assumption that disability was largely an affliction entirely outside human control: “I was appointed on a commission to investigate the conditions of the blind. For the first time I, who had thought blindness a misfortune beyond human control, found that too much of it was traceable to wrong industrial conditions, often caused by the selfishness and greed of employers.”
Of course this doesn’t mean that all forms of disability are the result of industrial accidents or workplace injuries, but if we look at the pattern of disability, it is very often related to questions of class, environment and lack of access to necessary resources. There are many diseases that can result in various forms of disability that could be avoided if the necessary resources were provided. The problem under capitalism is that these resources are not forthcoming because of the way the economic system funnels money only into profit-making ventures. Numerous charitable organizations which try to fill an impossible gap by drawing money mostly from working class people to deal with the disabilities often created by the system in the first place.
One of the leading debilitating illnesses worldwide is that of depression. And although depression is a complicated illness which can have a physiological basis or be related to chemical imbalances in the brain, in some instances, it is also no doubt related to the extreme alienation, poverty and isolation experienced by many of us in this system. This alienation also results in violence, either state-centered violence as in war, or interpersonal violence, turned against ourselves or others in our immediate circle, which in turn is the cause of various forms of disability.
The following comes from a study published by the World Health Organization on the causes of disability on an international scale: “Hearing loss, vision problems and mental disorders are the most common causes of disability… Worldwide, an estimated 650 million people (10 percent of the total population) live with disabilities, the vast majority in low-income and middle-income countries… A significant proportion of disabilities are caused by traffic crashes, falls, burns, and acts of violence such as child abuse, youth violence, intimate partner violence, and war…up to one quarter of disabilities may result from injuries and violence. These include: physical and/or cognitive limitations due to neurotrauma; paralysis due to spinal cord trauma; partial or complete amputation of limbs; physical limb deformation resulting in mobility impairments; psychological trauma; sensory disability such as blindness and deafness.”
As with other oppressions under capitalism, the self-organization of people with disabilities has been responsible for many of the reforms that attempt to improve conditions for people living with disabilities. In many countries this includes human rights legislation and other legislation attempting to enforce equality provisions or access.
And often this legislation ends up benefiting, not just those living with disabilities, but others in society as well. In Ontario it was a blind lawyer who fought, along with other disability rights activists, so that stops on subways, streetcars and buses would be spoken out loud for people with low or no vision. This also helps others using public transit, making it easier for people whose first language is not English or people who may not be familiar with the city, to navigate the system.
The disability rights movement was often inspired by other movements for change. In the US, for example, it was related to the anti-Vietnam war movement, since many soldiers returned home with various kinds of disabilities. Ron Kovic, whose struggle was brought to the screen in Oliver Stone’s movie Born on the 4th of July, is an example of a working class soldier who was radicalized by his experience in Vietnam and went on to speak out against the war and in favour of support for disabled veterans.
Many of us will experience some kind of disability throughout our lives, whether it is part of the natural process of aging or through an unforeseen accident at work, or, as for many people living in places that are bombed by Western forces, through the destruction of war.
It’s critically important that we support the struggles of people with disabilities, just as solidarity against racism or sexism are struggles not just for those affected by the particular form of discrimination, but for all of us who have an interest in building a new society that will truly be, to paraphrase Marx, from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.
Join the 4th annual Toronto Disability Pride March this Saturday, 1pm at Queen’s Park