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Why I Used to Love Making Jokes About Helen Keller

PBS NewsHour's 'Brief But Spectacular' features a UC Berkeley lecturer on her blindness


(Editor’s Note: This video and story were produced by PBS NewsHour.)

GEORGINA KLEEGE, Lecturer, UC Berkeley: It’s a common experience for people with disabilities to feel that they are being stared at or to notice they are being stared at. And in fact, blind people can feel that, too, a kind of collective intake of breath even if nobody says anything, you can tell when you attract attention.

I am legally blind, I became legally blind, I was diagnosed when I was 11. I probably lost my vision gradually over a few years. I remember feeling that I wasn’t supposed to feel anything about it, because there wasn’t anything anybody could do.

My complicated relationship with Helen Keller came from childhood. She was held up as this role model that she was deaf and blind, but she was always cheerful and she did well in school and you never heard her complain. I took this very personally. I took this as a reproach towards me.

So I hated Helen Keller and I loved Helen Keller jokes and I, you know, told them with relish in the schoolyard. I started to wonder if I had been unfair to Helen Keller when I was a child. I ended up writing a book about her, which is a series of letters by me, to her, and she doesn’t write back because she’s dead. It’s basically me asking questions about different moments in her life and calling her out and asking her to explain herself. And so, it was a way for me to enter her life imaginatively.

I tell my students all the time that they should tell their friends not to text while walking because I am always bumping into people who are texting while walking. And then they make themselves a hazard to blind people, because I am counting on all the other pedestrians to pay attention, to see me coming and to get out of my way.

I think there is still discrimination in all sorts of arenas. There’s problems with access to Web sites and electronic media and so on and so forth, captioning, audio description. The technology exists, people know how to do this, but it’s not as if everything is made accessible.

The problem is that people’s understanding of blindness is very limited. There’s the sort of joke scenario of a blind person coming to an intersection and somebody grabbing their arm and leading them across the street when in fact they wanted to go in a different direction. That’s never happened to me and I think part of it is just that I tend to look like I know where I’m going.

MALE: I would agree with that.

(LAUGHTER)

GEORGINA KLEEGE: My name is Georgina Kleege and this is my brief but spectacular take on blindness.

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