Disability is not a death sentence

It would be interesting to know if I am wrong in my assumption that most Americans know the story of Helen Keller (1880-1968). My assumption would be wrong if you are reading her story here for the first time.

While Helen Keller was in college, she told the story of her childhood in the 1903 Story of My Life and she appeared as herself in the silent 1919 film Deliverance. Her childhood was also the subject of the 1959 Broadway play, The Miracle Worker, and the film by the same name in 1962 starring Patty Duke (Astin) (b. 1946) as Keller. There were as well the 1979 and 2000 remakes of this film for television.

In 1904, Keller graduated from Radcliffe. The 1984 TV movie, The Miracle Continues, depicted Keller’s college and young adult years.
In 1964, President Johnson awarded Keller the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her native state, Alabama, honored Keller by placing an image of her on the U.S. quarter in 2003, placing a statue of her in the U.S. Capitol in 2009, and naming a hospital after her.

Stamps bearing Keller’s image have been issued by countries throughout the world, including by the U.S. in 1980. Several countries have streets named after her. And in 2005, India produced a film about her, entitled Black. Why all of this attention? Because Helen Keller became both blind and deaf after an illness when she was 19 months. She was taught to communicate at age 7, and she went on, during a long life of 88 years, to contribute to our lives.

Apparently no one told the story of Helen Keller to the identical Belgian twin men, age 45, cobblers both, who sought and obtainedassisted suicide in Belgium in December. Belgian law requires unbearable pain. The men’s pain was mental, namely, that they were deaf, and becoming blind. They were not yet blind. Being 45, they were not near the end of their natural lives. Their conditions were incurable but not terminal.

Apparently, too, no one told the story of Helen Keller to Jacqueline Herremans, a member of the Belgian Commission of Euthanasia, who said about the twins that “they would not have been able to lead autonomous lives, and that with only a sense of touch they had no prospects of a future.” (The senses of smell and taste are ignored.)

It was with good reason that Not Dead Yet was founded in the mid-1990s. The members are persons with disabilities advocating against assisted suicide vehemently opposed to Professor Peter Singer’s articulation of criteria for what constitutes a human being.

Many people associate the word Talladega with NASCAR racing and the 2006 movie Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.My background — as someone who lived three years with 11 teen-aged boys with mental and physical disabilities, and who served for five years as a director of the Chicago Bar Association’s Legal Clinic for the Disabled, Inc., housed in the renowned Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago — causes me to associate the word Talladega with the town’s famous Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind.

Reading of the story of the Belgian twins, I was reminded of my paternal grandmother who became blind when she was a young mother. But she raised five children. I was also reminded of my good fortune in appearing in Juvenile Court in Cook County (Chicago) on the Child Abuse and Neglect “calendar” before Judge Stephen R. Yates. After Judge Yates received a diagnosis of Lou Gehrig’s Disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS), he continued to judge and to teach. He died at age 60, not of assisted suicide.

While you may not have known, or known about, Judge Yates, we have all heard of, listened to, or read books by the cosmologist Stephen Hawking (b. 1942), who has a condition like Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

I assert that the Belgian twins could have lived, and lived well, despite being blind and deaf. Note that they were becoming blind over several years so they had plenty of time to prepare for their new situation. Apparently they used two years of this time to shop for a doctor who would help them commit suicide.

But let me turn your attention from the person or persons with disabilities to their doctors, relatives, and caregivers.

The inspiration for these people would be Anne Sullivan (1866-1934), “the miracle worker,” played in the 1962 film by the late Anne Bancroft (1931-2005) and in the 1979 remake by Patty Duke Astin. Sullivan had grown up destitute and in an almshouse. She was 20 years old, nearly blind and a graduate of a school for the blind, when she traveled the long distance from Massachusetts to Alabama to teach the 7-year old blind-and-deaf Helen. She and Helen Keller were to become companions for decades.

Twenty years after Anne’s death, Helen published a tribute to her inTeacher, Anne Sullivan Macy: A Tribute by the Foster Child of Her Mind (1955). There have been several biographies of this great teacher: Nella Braddy, Anne Sullivan Macy: The Story Behind Helen Keller (1933), Sarah Miller, Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller (2007), Marfe Ferguson Delano, Helen’s Eyes: A Photobiography of Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller’s Teacher (2008), and Kim E. Nielsen, Beyond the Miracle Worker: The Remarkable Life of Anne Sullivan Macy and Her Extraordinary Friendship with Helen Keller (2009).

At Anne’s passing, Helen held her hand. And so, Helen had switched roles and had become Anne’s caregiver. For their part, the Belgian twins decided that they would rather commit suicide than care for any other human being, including their surviving parents and brother, who had pled with them, in Dylan Thomas’ words of 1951 “Do not go gentle into that good night… Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.” 

James M. Thunder is a Washington, D.C. attorney, the father of three daughters, and former county prosecutor of child abuse and neglect. This article first appeared in The American Spectator and has been republished with the permission of the author.  See Mercator's previous article, "The Real Success of Anne Bancroft" for another angle on the Helen Keller story. 


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