Lessons from Helen Keller – in Association With Leeds Disability Action Society and Leeds Sign Language Society

On Wednesday 15th November at 6:50 p.m. several like-minded people congregated in a large Business School seminar room – donned in comfy pyjamas – to watch, with admiration, the documentary of one very inspiring and unique lady: Helen Keller. Helen is recognised the world over for her inspiring attitude in the face of adversity, and her legacy in disability studies and advocacy remains to this day. 

The event was a collaboration between two societies, united by their particular focus on inclusion and diversity of the disabled: LUU Sign Language Society and LUU Disability Action Society.

If you are not currently a member of either of these societies (which you should be, because they’re great!) you may not know about what they entail – so I begin by providing a little background:

LUU Sign Language Society meet at 7pm every Wednesday in the Business school, where the committee – who either have obtained or are obtaining BSL qualifications – teach British Sign Language. You can also be offered the chance to join official BSL classes, taught by professionals at a reduced rate.

Disability Action Society has informal catch-ups with refreshments at 4pm on Wednesdays this is why it is often so fondly referred to as the Disabili-tea Society by its president, Charlotte Duckett. This society provides an opportunity to discuss anything and everything disability-related, (or anything you fancy, really), with a diverse group of friends who  may just have that little bit extra understanding. Having a disability isn’t even a requirement; all you need is a passion for disability rights/equality/diversity etc, and who doesn’t have that? There is also no membership fee!

Now I move to the documentary, and tell you about some key facts and features that I learnt while watching the documentary. Helen Keller was born near the Tennessee river in Alabama in 1880, and was the first of three children. Unfortunately, at the age of 19 months, she contracted an illness which left her both deaf and blind. Keller was – and still is – considered to be the most successfully educated deaf-blind child in the US; part of the reason behind this may have been related to the speed at which she was able to retain knowledge: within a day of learning she could learn 30 words; by a month she would know 700, and after a year she knew the alphabet well enough to be able to read and write.

There were some negative critics of Keller, such as her own uncle, who called her ‘defective’, and people believing that she was not capable of and responsible for having her own views and actions, as they must have been instilled in her by another – more able – source; this may correlate with Sign Language Society’s Level 1 co-ordinator, Izzy Lambert-Russell’s thoughts on the documentary:

‘‘I thought it was good that the film talked about sexuality and disability, and about the way people saw her as a ‘pure’, child-like, politically-unaware, moulded-by-her-carers individual, when in fact she was so much more than that!”

And clearly  many friends and family members thought so, too, as they were positive about Keller and her many achievements. Her mother adored her; her aunt believed she had ‘more sense than all of [them] if they can reach her mind’, and her teacher at the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston – recommended to her parents by their family friend, Alexander Graham Bell,no less – also became her best friend and carer.

Image: Awesome Stories
Helen on her graduation from Radcliffe College in 1904

What’s even more amazing is that Helen Keller was the first deaf-blind child to go to college; she was admitted into – albeit a little grudgingly – Radcliffe (a liberal womens art college in Cambridge, Massachusetts), and struggled and perservered immensly in order to keep up with the work. Especially at a time where it was almost a rarity to see any woman admitted to further education at the time, for a deaf-blind female this was even more astounding for people to comprehend.

“ I think the documentary is a fantastic way of spreading awareness of deaf blind history and I was so pleased with the turnout!” – Anna Doherty, Sign Language Society Secretary

Despite the many positive experiences in Keller’s life, it is safe to say she hasn’t had the easiest journey. From the many people who knew Keller believing she must have felt isolated and lonely due to not knowing people in a similar situation to her own, to Helen Keller’s own frustration with her abnormal way of talking, (which she never lost, even after learning to lip-read and then talk at age 11), the documentary explores the ups and downs of Helen’s life.

This loosely relates to a conversation I had with my friend about the film: it was divided into parts, and she mentioned how she felt it jumped around quite a bit, between various stages of her life. I could see her point; the structure of the documentary wasn’t particularly coherent, but the range of pictures and authentic video clips included were a nice touch which aided our understanding.

Furthermore, for a documentary about the personal life of such an inspirational figure, I was surprised by the more matter-of-fact narrative and lack of emotion within the film; although this may have reflected the way in which Keller would get tired of people feeling sorry for her and behaving in a patronising manner towards her, and so the creators of the documentary may have felt the simplicity and authenticity, of just telling her story, is what Keller would have wanted. In this sense, I can appreciate the take on it.

Having said all that, (for the lack of emotion and slightly fragmentary sequence of the recount), I would rate the documentary an overall 4/5.

In terms of the night as a whole…well, wow: what an ambience! There was even a coffee and cake sale; the proceeds of which were going towards SignHealth – a charity that ‘works to improve the health and wellbeing of people who are Deaf’ – and it just so happens that the Sign Language Society have raised a total of £262 for this charity, since this September alone


What a SIGNificant success!


Olivia Wilkinson