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5 minute read
Diane Schuur with David Jackson

Helen Keller was less than two years old when she came down with a fever. It struck dramatically and left her unconscious. The fever went just as suddenly. But she was blinded and, very soon after, deaf. As she grew up, she managed to learn to do tiny errands, but she also realized that she was missing something. “Sometimes,” she later wrote, “I stood between two persons who were conversing and touched their lips. I could not understand, and was vexed. I moved my lips and gesticulated frantically without result. This made me so angry at times that I kicked and screamed until I was exhausted.” She was a wild child.

I can understand her rage. I was born two months prematurely and was placed in an incubator. The practice at the time was to pump a large amount of oxygen into the incubator, something doctors have since learned to be extremely cautious about. But as a result, I lost my sight. I was sent to a state school for the blind, but I flunked first grade because Braille just didn’t make any sense to me. Words were a weird concept. I remember being hit and slapped. And you act all that in. All rage is anger that is acted in, bottled in for so long that it just pops out. Helen had it harder. She was both blind and deaf. But, oh, the transformation that came over her when she discovered that words were related to things! It’s like the lyrics of that song: “On a clear day, rise and look around you, and you’ll see who you are.”

I can say the word see. I can speak the language of the sighted. That’s part of the first great achievement of Helen Keller. She proved how language could liberate the blind and the deaf. She wrote, “Literature is my utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised.” But how she struggled to master language. In her book Midstream, she wrote about how she was frustrated by the alphabet, by the language of the deaf, even with the speed with which her teacher spelled things out for her on her palm. She was impatient and hungry for words, and her teacher’s scribbling on her hand would never be as fast, she thought, as the people who could read the words with their eyes. I remember how books got me going after I finally grasped Braille. Being in that school was like being in an orphanage. But words–and in my case, music–changed that isolation. With language, Keller, who could not hear and could not see, proved she could communicate in the world of sight and sound–and was able to speak to it and live in it. I am a beneficiary of her work. Because of her example, the world has given way a little. In my case, I was able to go from the state school for the blind to regular public school from the age of 11 until my senior year in high school. And then I decided on my own to go back into the school for the blind. Now I sing jazz.

As miraculous as learning language may seem, that achievement of Keller’s belongs to the 19th century. It was also a co-production with her patient and persevering teacher, Anne Sullivan. Helen Keller’s greater achievement came after Sullivan, her companion and protector, died in 1936. Keller would live 32 more years and in that time would prove that the disabled can be independent. I hate the word handicapped. Keller would too. We are people with inconveniences. We’re not charity cases. She was once asked how disabled veterans of World War II should be treated and said that they do “not want to be treated as heroes. They want to be able to live naturally and to be treated as human beings.”

Those people whose only experience of her is The Miracle Worker will be surprised to discover her many dimensions. “My work for the blind,” she wrote, “has never occupied a center in my personality. My sympathies are with all who struggle for justice.” She was a tireless activist for racial and sexual equality. She once said, “I think God made woman foolish so that she might be a suitable companion to man.” She had such left-leaning opinions that the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover kept a file on her. And who were her choices for the most important people of the century? Thomas Edison, Charlie Chaplin and Lenin. Furthermore, she did not think appearing on the vaudeville circuit, showing off her skills, was beneath her, even as her friends were shocked that she would venture onto the vulgar stage. She was complex. Her main message was and is, “We’re like everybody else. We’re here to be able to live a life as full as any sighted person’s. And it’s O.K. to be ourselves.”

That means we have the freedom to be as extraordinary as the sighted. Keller loved an audience and wrote that she adored “the warm tide of human life pulsing round and round me.” That’s why the stage appealed to her, why she learned to speak and to deliver speeches. And to feel the vibrations of music, of the radio, of the movement of lips. You must understand that even more than sighted people, we need to be touched. When you look at a person, eye to eye, I imagine it’s like touching them. We don’t have that convenience. But when I perform, I get that experience from a crowd. Helen Keller must have as well. She was our first star. And I am very grateful to her.

Diane Schuur’s latest jazz CD is Music Is My Life from Atlantic Records

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