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Opinion | Is a Helen Keller Obsession Holding Disabled People Back?

The extremes of disabled representation that we usually find in mainstream media — superhuman disabled people on the one hand, pitiful creatures in need of a cure on the other — are created, almost exclusively, by nondisabled people for nondisabled people. This perhaps explains why they are so redundant and out of touch with our experience. It would be laughable if those images did not translate directly into discrimination in the workplace, in the medical establishment, in our creative institutions. I and other blind writers experience this in both obvious and subtle ways. For instance, we often hear from editors and other decision makers, “Oh, we like this work, but we just published a blind author.” Culturally speaking, it reinforces the idea that we can have only one blind person at a time in the room.

My fellow writers are those I know best, but there’s a growing community of disabled artists, thinkers, performers and creators, some of whom Keller may have applauded, others perhaps not. We don’t all have to agree; the numbers and variety is what’s important in order to crumble the monoliths that serve mostly to keep a majority of disabled people from flourishing. We gain strength in those numbers.

In my own journey of becoming a published author, I’ve had a lot of help from my fellow blind writers, such as Jim Knipfel, the first contemporary blind voice I’d ever read and whose New York Press column, “Slackjaw,” showed me that we could be funny and irreverent; and contemporaries like James Tate Hill, whose new memoir, “Blind Man’s Bluff,” tells the story of central vision loss similar to my own, dismantling the strict binary of sight and blindness. They’ve helped me negotiate the writing process and publishing industry in ways that sighted writers never could have.

Other writers are expanding disability culture in new and exciting ways. Elsa Sjunneson is a deaf-blind writer and editor whose forthcoming book, “Being Seen,” is a radical takedown of ableism, demanding that the nondisabled world adapt and change around the disabled body. John Lee Clark is a deaf-blind poet, essayist and Protactile educator with two books forthcoming. Protactile is a touch-based communication system developed by and for the deaf-blind community. Clark is the most well-connected person I know, with a deaf-blind network that is not just national but global. He has helped me to think about the flip side of accessibility and inclusion — the dangers and frustrations inherent in always clamoring to be let into the mainstream and the importance of creating our own culture based on the senses we enjoy. If we truly want more diversity in the stories we tell, then perhaps we need to make room for different ways of telling them.

So yes, let’s take a moment to celebrate Helen Keller, and then let’s imagine what it might mean to be like her, to do what she would do now — to work hard to communicate with all kinds of people, to fight for the rights of others as well as ourselves and to realize that acceptance and inclusion are ever-evolving things made possible by choice and determination, not by miracles.

M. Leona Godin is a writer, performer, educator and the author of “There Plant Eyes: A Personal and Cultural History of Blindness.” She has taught literature and humanities courses at New York University and has lectured on art, accessibility, technology and disability across the country. Her online magazine Aromatica Poetica explores the arts and sciences of smell and taste.

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