Tag Archives: anna rants

Feminist Icons

One of the fastest ways to make women with disabilities seem pathetic and worthless is to erase or ignore their lives. Why should the Feminist movement celebrate women like Helen Keller, when everyone knows that Keller’s entire contribution was she learned how to talk – and that was entirely Anne Sullivan’s work, after all.

This is, of course, completely untrue [1. Well, not the bit about the water, but that it’s the sum total of Keller’s accomplishments], but there was a concentrated effort to ensure that Keller’s accomplishments were ignored. “Radical Marxist” isn’t as nice a story as “deaf-blind woman overcomes”.

If you learned about Helen Keller in school at all, you probably learned the same pablum-esque story I did: Keller was a horrible brat of a child who screamed and kicked and was bad. Then, Anne Sullivan, that angelic woman, came along and, through her virtuous patience, finally got Keller to learn. She stuck Keller’s hand under the well water, and spelled “water” into her hand. And suddenly, Keller learned that “water” meant this stuff pouring over her hand. And then many years later she graduated from Radcliff College, and this is why all the students in my class should try their hardest, because look at how much Helen Keller accomplished, The End. [1. I think I’ve just described the plot of The Miracle Workeranother reason why I’m irritated that the show’s being put on. Ooh, let’s perpetuate the idea that Keller’s life began and ended at that water pump!]

This idea of Keller is so pervasive that even books written about Keller in her lifetime – books that she wrote the introduction for – include the same story. To be vain and quote an essay I wrote last semester:

The only blind person who is given any voice or agency within the work [Ishbel Ross’ Journey Into Light: The Story of the Education of the Blind] is Helen Keller, who wrote the forward for the book, and is presented as “[rising] above her triple handicap to become one of the best-known characters in the modern world.” … [D]espite dedicating a whole chapter to Keller, Ross makes no mention of Keller’s politics or activism, instead describing Keller’s grace, “agelessness”, and book collection.

No mention of her membership in the Wobblies [1. Industrial Workers of the World. They’re still around.]. I guess that didn’t fit the narrative.

I learned about Helen Keller’s actual life story by reading the book Lies my Teacher Told Me. [1. Loewen, James W. Lies my Teacher Told Me: Everything your American History Textbook Got Wrong, New York: Touchstone, 1995.] It’s a book that’s a bit hard for me to evaluate properly because I went to school in Canada and it’s focused on American education and teaching. The section Keller appears in (cleverly titled “handicapped by history”) talks about hero-building and erasing things that add complications in our respected leaders. About Keller, Loewen writes:

Keller’s commitment to socialism stemmed from her experience as a disabled person and from her sympathy for others with handicaps. She began by working to simplify the alphabet for the blind, but soon came to realize that to deal solely with blindness was to treat symptom, not cause. Through research she learned that blindness was not distributed randomly throughout the population but was concentrated in the lower class. Men who were poor might be blinded in industrial accidents or by inadequate medical care; poor women who became prostitutes faced the additional danger of syphilitic blindness. Thus Keller learned how the social class system controls people’s opportunities in life, sometimes determining even whether they can see. Keller’s research was not just book-learning: “I have visited sweatshops, factories, crowded slums. If I could not see it, I could smell it.”

At the time Keller became a socialist, she was one of the most famous women on the planet. She soon became the most notorious. Her conversion to socialism caused a new storm of publicity – this time outraged. Newspapers that had extolled her courage and intelligence now emphasized her handicap. Columnists charged that she had no independent sensory input, and was in thrall to those who fed her information. Typical was the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, who wrote that Keller’s “mistakes spring out of the manifest limitation of her development.”

Keller recalled having met the editor: “At that time 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. I must have shrunk in intelligence during the years since I met him” She went on: “On, ridiculous Brooklyn Eagle! Socially blind and deaf, it defends an intolerable system, a system that is the cause of much of the physical blindness and deafness which we are trying to prevent.” [1. LMTTM, 22-23]

Among other things, Keller helped found the American Civil Liberties Union, donated money to the NAACP, supported birth control, was part of the women’s suffrage movement, and spent time in Halifax. [1. What? I like my city! She spoke at the closing ceremonies of the Nova Scotia School of the Deaf and Dumb. I’ve read her letters to the principal. I get kinda wibbly. Helen Keller was here!]

When we talk about Women’s History – and I understand Women’s History month is in March in the US[1. It’s October in Canada.], so that’s not too long from now – we are doing something wrong if we do not include the lives of women with disabilities. Helen Keller isn’t the only woman with disabilities who has been ignored, erased, or sanitized for public consumption – it happens over and over, to queer women, to women of colour, to women who are ‘marked’ as ‘not-mainstream’.

I think we can do better than this. I think we’re brave enough to not only confront that important women of our past participated in and encouraged others to participate in abuse, neglect, genocide of certain groups of women, but also brave enough to celebrate histories outside the mainstream.

Why “being nice” isn’t enough

On December 30, I wrote a post about the myth that people with disabilities are out to sue everyone else into compliance, booga booga fear the scary crippled people. In there I mentioned that Don & I had gone off to the mall and had difficulties getting into the shops, since apparently “wheelchair accessible” doesn’t mean “keep your aisles clear of junk”.

I wrote an email to the mall in question:

Subject: Accessibility and the Mall


I recently visited your mall with my husband, a full-time wheelchair user. This was not our first visit to your mall, but it may be our last.

Many of the shops in your mall are not actually wheelchair accessible for a regular wheelchair user. The aisles between shelving units are rarely wide enough for a wheelchair user to not risk knocking something over. Often the aisles and open floor spaces are covered in sales items. Things jut into the aisles that could knock someone in the head. These issues do not even touch on sales staff that ignore people using wheelchairs [1. Oh, hey, we went to Don’s favourite Big & Tall shop in the other mall earlier this week. When he was by himself, and thus struggling with the sweaters, he got completely ignored. When I came into the shop to find him, I was offered assistance immediately. Even though she was standing not a foot from where Don was wheeling around looking for more sweaters, the same sales assistant completely ignored him. So, yeah, I’m going to be writing another email. But I’m especially annoyed because this is the only shop we’ve been to that sells clothing in Don’s size – where else are we going to go?], or stores that are so crowded that a wheelchair user cannot get around – both of which are human-related issues, and not ones I would expect mall administration to be able to deal with, although some sort of policy discussion on that would likely be helpful.

Although your mall has an accessibility policy, I can see nothing on your website that discusses if the stores within the mall are expected to uphold it, or what expectations the mall has that stores will be accessible.

We planned on spending the day yesterday taking advantage of the extended Sunday hours and Boxing Week Sales. Instead, we purchased one item and left. It was impossible for my husband to enter many of the stores that carry items we would want to purchase, or, if he could enter them, he could only get part of the way through the store before the above issues made it impossible for him to go any further back.

I feel many of these issues could be solved if the mall enforced an accessibility policy for the stores within it.

Thank you for your time,

Anna [Last Name]

I did get an email back, which was very polite and understanding and full of fluff. I won’t quote the whole thing, but this one line stood out to me:

Unfortunately we cannot enforce an accessibility policy, but we will be making every effort to encourage our retailers to provide barrier free access through education and an incentive program.

I don’t quite know why the mall can’t enforce an accessibility policy. I do know there is not a Canada-wide accessibility policy, and Nova Scotia is not exactly noted for accessibility-friendly policies.

In a world where people just needed to ask for assistance and voila, it would appear, as though magic, we wouldn’t need an accessibility policy. I could just drop an email to the mall, and that would be the end of it. Heck, I probably wouldn’t need to drop an email to the mall – from the goodness of their hearts, they would already have a thorough accessibility program in place, covering things I never think to ask for, like scent-free policies and braille signs and more seating [1. Well, I used to remember to ask for more seating, and then Don got a wheelchair and now I have to think about it.] and… well, things I never think to ask for.

This is why I’m displeased that my country doesn’t have even a token-effort federally mandated accessibility law. The mall, which can mandate things like “required to follow fire codes” and “required to open during mall hours” cannot (or chooses not to – I suspect the latter, frankly) require the same stores to follow an accessibility policy.

But yeah – if we’re all just really really nice, maybe they’ll do so anyway.