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Role of Helen Keller in the Emancipation of the Sightless

The following paper was presented by Shri Buddhadev Sikdar in the Seminar on “Helen Keller, Her Life and Struggle” organised at H.L. Roy Memorial Hall, Indian Institute of Chemical Engineering, Jadabpur University, Kolkata on June 27, 2009 by Blind Persons’ Association with the aid of Indian Council of Social Science Research (Eastern Region).

At the beginning of my speech I wish to explain clearly our notion about the meaning of the phrase “Emancipation of the Sightless”. It will be the key to understanding the pioneering role played by Helen Keller, the emblem of love, peace and optimism before mankind, for the salvation of the innumerable light-denied throughout the world.

We have to go back to the distant past to trace the origin of the problem, faced solely by the vast multitude of the visually impaired. From the dawn of civilization, people denied the gift of sight, were unable to participate in the struggle of human race against nature to build up society. As a result, they were condemned to the curse of social ostracism. They became habituated to a parasitic existence, living on beggary or petty charity. This phenomenon led the society to assume some falsified ideas about blindness. That is why, even today, we compare the lack of reasoning or the deficiency of knowledge to “blindness”.

“Emancipation of the sightless”, means, therefore, the liberation of the millions and millions of sightless people from a humiliating and abortive existence, by becoming one with the society. But how? What kind of performance on behalf of sightless people themselves will suffice to bring this change? Free from any egoistic pettiness, resentment or personal antipathy, the visually challenged should now take a challenge to plunge themselves into the continuous struggle for the advancement of civilization to alter the truth. Then they will be bestowed with real dignity, worthy of a human being. Helen Keller’s life is a glorious journey towards this goal. Her lifelong service to humanity included not only her activities for the all-round development of the visually impaired or handicapped people, but also her movements with an aim to wipe out hunger, inequality, exploitation and hatred from the face of the world.

Helen’s compassion towards the ill-fated downtrodden classes of society first manifested itself when she was a mere girl of eight years. She came to hear the shocking news of an orphan child of five years. Tom, the deaf-and-blind boy, lay ill in a hospital with no one to support his treatment. She at once spread the news among her benefactors with a request for help. According to V. W. Brooks, “From the time when she was a little girl, Helen Keller had seen herself, objectively, as a spokesman for the blind.”

No sooner had she completed her academic career, Helen devoted herself fully to develop awareness in the society of the troubles, miseries and problems faced by the sightless people. Summoned by the son of Mr. Camble to join Women’s Educational and Industrial Union in Boston, founded for the well-being of the aged blind, she accepted the membership and requested to build up state commission for their benefit. In 1907 she wrote several essays on various problems of the sightless in Matilda Ziegler as well as in The Outlook for the Blind. These writings widely attracted people’s attention. In this same year she was requested to send an article for the Encyclopedia of Education. Once Helen won an award of $5000 from a magazine. She handed it over to one of the foundations for the blind.

Meanwhile in 1906, Helen received the first of many invitations to sit on public committees, and to act as a spokesperson for blind people. The state of Massachusetts was one of the first to set up a Commission for the Blind, and Helen was one of its first members. She played an active part campaigning for better treatment and opportunities for blind people. Helen also hit headlines with her campaign on another issue related to blind welfare. Doctors discovered that many babies were born with a serious eye infection caused by a sexually-transmitted disease. She was determined to join with others–including many early feminists–who were trying to break the taboo. She made a point of mentioning the issue whenever she had an audience. Eventually, the message got through, and many babies’ eyes were saved.

From 1924 she was chiefly occupied in raising funds for the American Foundation for the Blind, founded in 1921. In three years she addressed 250 meetings in churches, synagogues, town halls, women’s clubs, travelling all over the country. Lobbying in Washington, she walked through miles of corridors in the hope of capturing a senator who would advocate the cause of the blind. It should be mentioned here that Helen refused to accept any patronage for her own, though she had to toil hard to earn for her whole life. She stopped receiving contributions offered to her during her student life.

Helen’s inquisitiveness and passion for truth led her to the conclusion that blindness as well as handicap is for most of the cases veritably the consequence of social disparity–poverty and ignorance. She focused her attention at the hub of the crisis and urged upon others to wipe out the cause for the sake of progress of civilization. As a result Helen gave her life to various humanitarian causes–not only for the rights of disabled people but for labourers, strikers and for women’s equality and obstinately stood against exploitation and oppression. she used her popular image to attract attention to minority groups and exploited classes. In her journal she recorded her feelings on burning political issues of the day; she was evidently on the side of the poor and oppressed.

She had vivid memories of the East Side slums, which she had visited as a child with her teacher, Miss Anne Sullivan, and Alexander Graham Bell, and she had seen as a grown woman the dreadful back alleys of Washington and Pittsburgh. The filthy atmosphere of the slum areas, the skeletal sickly bodies of the children of the labourers distressed and agitated her. In her writings she firmly argued that as long as the exploited masses are bound to live in this dirty and sordid situation, they are prone to getting diseased and to giving birth to handicapped children. So the duty of the factory-owners and the government is not only to take home profits but to spend a good portion of their earnings for well planned living of the drudges. Her thoughts went even deeper to comprehend the truth that the crazy pursuit of the exploiters after sheer revenue caused the moral and ethical deprivation of the society. “Trade and material prosperity”, Helen wrote in an essay in 1913, “are held to be the main objects of pursuit and conquest, the lowest instincts in human nature — love of gain, cunning and selfishness — are fostered.”

Gradually and obviously she became the champion of socialism and believed it could only solve these problems. In 1909 she became a member of the American Socialist Party, displaying proudly a red flag, the symbol of Socialist workers’ revolution, on the wall of her study. Following her convictions, Helen Keller advised college girls to study the problems of mill-hands and workers in mines and, generally, the living conditions in industrial cities, relating their knowledge of philosophy and history to the processes that were making history daily.

Helen Keller supported a pioneering strike of textile workers at Lawrence, Massachusetts, organized by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) movement and sent a cheque to strengthen it. When at Sacramento of California police prevented and lathicharged on a rally of the unemployed, marching from San Fransisco to Washington DC with the demand for employment, Helen sent a note to the Star, an esteemed daily, protesting the ruthless attitude of the police ignoring the threats not to tell anything about the torture. She wrote essays and articles on Socialist topics,and these were collected together and published as a book in 1913.

Inspired by humanity and equality, Helen inevitably found joy and enthusiasm at the insurrection in Russia. She praised Lenin, the architect of Russian revolution, for sowing “unshatterable seed of a new life for mankind”. She went up against the brutality and barbarism of Nazism in Germany. It was these beliefs of Helen Keller that caused her books to be publicly burned in front of the Berlin Opera House in 1933, while Dr. Paul Goebbels addressed the students who piled them up with other books. She campaigned with all the great intellectuals of that time against World War II. despite all the insistent efforts of the piece-loving people of America, the rulers of USA joined the war guided by their imperialist motive. Helen Keller took no time to thrust herself into service of the wounded soldiers, rushing from one hospital to another. She wholeheartedly helped to rehabilitate the unfortunate multitude disabled in the battlefield.

Could Helen stride in her own way smoothly without any obstacle? Didn’t she confront with any adversity or antagonism to accomplish the tasks she wanted? Of course she did! The hostility against her was so severe that she might have told like Shelley “I fall upon the thorn of life, I bleed”.

Helen’s support for the workers’ strikes, and for other radical causes, including abolishing the death penalty and prohibiting the employment of young children, made her unpopular with many American citizens. This was not the pure, unsullied “lily of the valley” an epithet used about her by Michael Anagnos, director of Perkins Institution for the Blind. They wondered why a protégé like Helen should bother about the sordid world of slaughter, poverty and hunger? People were even more shocked and scandalized when Helen spoke out for the campaign jointly with Margaret Sanger, a veteran feminist, to make birth control readily available to all women, especially to poor women, struggling to raise children on a paltry income. They were similarly shocked when they found Helen striding ahead of the rally demanding the rights of franchise for women. In her biography on Helen Keller Fiona Macdonald commented, “As a woman who was totally dependent on others for all her everyday needs, she recognized the importance of independence for women–in work, at home and in their family lives. And as a member of a dependent and disadvantaged minority group, she supported the demands of another minority to seek freedom and equality in the eyes of the law.” Helen also stirred up consternation among her friends and relatives in the Southern states when she gave her support to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in their demand for full civil rights for all black people throughout the United States.

It is an irony of fate that the society of her time was not prepared to accept the radical, outspoken nature of Helen Keller. They expected her to think and act according to their own worn-out decrepit ideas about blindness. Nevertheless, she never compromised with these rotten ideas for she knew well that the existence of such ideas is the main impediment before blind people for achieving real dignity as human being.

The onslaught of the newspapers was more detrimental and menacing. Sometimes, directed by their interest to shield capitalism, they attacked her personally and made fun of her physical shortcomings, avoiding any reply to her true arguments. A respectable newspapers said that poor blind Helen Keller was being used by the socialists for the sake of her name and fame and that, in any case, being both blind and deaf, she was especially susceptible to error. Another newspaper pricked her with harsh criticism by saying that suddenly she had found out many faults with capitalist class forgetting the fact that they patronized her to grow up. Helen’s reply was modest but challenging—“ I like frank debate, and I do not object to harsh criticism so long as I am treated like a human being with a mind of her own.” Resolutely but modestly she answered all the fake allegations against her in some articles and books.

I wish to invite your attention to another relevant point. The oppressing rulers or their organs make no objection as long as the social activities of a person does not hurt their self-interest. But as soon as the person strikes at the root of the problem or reveals the cruel nature of the society, they begin to accuse, abuse and malign the person. Helen’s life was a proof of such reality. “The attitude of the press was maddening.” She commented in her autobiography, Midstream, “… So long as I confine my activities to social service and the blind, they compliment me extravagantly, calling me the “archpriestess of the sightless,” “wonder woman,” and “modern miracle,” but when it comes to a discussion of a burning social or political issue, especially if I happen to be, as I so often am, on the unpopular side, the tone changes completely. They are grieved because they imagine I am in the hands of unscrupulous persons who take advantage of my afflictions to make me a mouthpiece for their own ideas.” Helen Keller had to endure so much to enact her righteous role.

We feel perplexed till today, from where did Helen attain so strong a self-determination. Her teacher and friend-in-need for ever, Miss Anne Sullivan, was, no doubt, the prime source of her inspiration. Sullivan’s magnanimous service to foster our heroine from her childhood and her obligation for a lifelong bond with her pupil instilled in Helen a profound sensitivity for others. Her close relationship with Dr. Graham Bell, a scientist and a logty character, and Mark Twain, a world famous writer, endowed her with confidence, power of high thinking and a sensitive mind for creation. Her reading of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Bergson, Tolstoy and Karl Marx in college and John Macy’s (husband of Anne Sullivan) introduction to Romain Rolland, Hardy, Kropotkin, Anatole France and Wells to Helen led her deeper and deeper every day into the world of socialism. In her mature years she was impressed by being acquainted with Charlie Chaplin, Einstein, Bernard Shaw, Rabindranath Tagore and so on.

Helen Keller’s achievement is too vast and vivid in nature to describe in a single session. There was none before her in the community of the handicapped people who became so emotionally attached to common people throughout the world. She was adored by people with deformity and toiling masses of all the countries and eloquently praised by all the great personalities of her time. She was even compared with the statue of liberty, a matchless colossal statue of a lady standing upright with a raised hand holding an ignited lamp at the doorway of New York. We are familiar with some other deaf-blind personalities who were also educated. But None of them did enjoy the love and admiration from all walks of life as Helen could. Why? It was not only for her fight to conquer physical limitations or her wonderful aptitude for learning, but also for her unfadomable love for people, love for truth and defiant and uncompromising nature that she became praiseworthy to all. Unique in nature, her whole life is an example of the potentiality of will power.

The imancipation of the sightless is still unattained. So we cannot end up our discussion merely with an eulogy on Helen’s eventful life or her successes. The call of the hour is to accomplish the mammoth task undone. The struggle–commenced by Monsieur Louis Braille through his invention of a scientific method for the blind for acquiring knowledge and augmented to a newer dimension by our great lady—has to be carried on. There is still a controversy concerning the correct way! In modern times, it is true that access to academic degrees and services, if not always easily get-at-able, is no more a utopia for the blind. In fact, successes and achievements in different fields are not too infrequent in the lives of a fortunate few of them. But these and many other so-called positive aspects—like climbing up the hills or swimming in English Channel, efficiency of playing cricket or singing–have hardly resolved the centuries-long problem faced by the handicapped multitude.

To find out an apt way of solution, the unseeing should strive to generate a feeling of expectation about themselves in others without expecting anything from anybody. To prepare themselves to prove equal to this task, they should engage themselves in cultivating higher sense of values and applying them in their lives. This is in actuality a struggle to build ideal characters– firm in resolve, supreme in sacrifice, uncompromising against injustice, open to reason, unyielding to temptation, fearless in fight, ever present in the struggle of suffering humanity. These teachings are surely derived from the life of Helen Keller. It is on this firm foundation of acquiring knowledge that this character is to be built. That is why Helen always emphasized on the importance of spreading knowledge among all.

The emergence of such characters will pave the way for the entry of the sightless into the mainstream of the society with dignity on an equal footing. A yearning will then be welling out of the innermost recesses of the hearts to accept them with due honour for the sake of progress of the society. Then and then only Helen Keller will be conferred with real dignity and admiration, for her unforgettable service to mankind.

Buddhadev Sikdar
General Secretary
Blind Persons’ Association

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