A Life Reclaimed: Becoming Helen Keller

a two-hour Film biography IN PROGRESS - for American Masters (PBS)

Row of five Helen Keller portraits, from early childhood through womanhood to old age

“The characters were so engaging, I was totally absorbed. I thought I knew this story, but clearly not!” Oce Harrison, New England Americans With Disabilities Act Network Director, after previewing Hour One-Rough Cut


Helen Keller’s real story demands to be reclaimed. She's a staple of elementary school research projects throughout the United States, along with Rosa Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt. But Keller's story rarely moves much past marveling about the Miracle at the Pump as seen in the 1962 film The Miracle Worker. Helen Keller almost never comes up in high school history curriculum. What all kids know are the jokes: hundreds of them, some nasty, some not so bad. South Park aired a snarky Helen Keller, The Musical, in 2000. Keller’s name is attached to a raunchy dance-floor move – “do the Helen Keller” (check out the online Urban dictionary for details). Middle-schoolers playing rugby or soccer  might learn to make a “Helen Keller” play – a fake stumble designed to distract the other team. Such roles aren’t part of other leaders with disabilities, such as FDR. Why? 

As a child, Keller did not choose her celebrity. The newspapers loved the story of a deaf and blind child who learned to communicate by the age of 7 and went on to earn a Radcliffe College degree – with honors. But as an adult she chose to use her celebrity to deliver a message about equality, the right to employment and education, the dignity of us all. From 1900-1968, decade after decade, wherever she went – in the 1950s she visited nearly 37 countries around the world – she didn’t hesitate to speak her mind and advocate for opportunities to improve the lives of people with disabilities, the disenfranchised, and women. She deserves to stand with Harriet Tubman, Margaret Sanger, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Rosa Parks as a pioneer who fought ceaselessly for the dignity and full equality of all. Her story, and her message, illuminate our present.