About 15 years ago I first learned that Helen Keller performed in vaudeville. As I discuss in There Plant Eyes, I was moonlighting as a performance artist with the Art Stars of the Lower East Side when I stumbled upon the delicious fact that Helen and Annie did the vaudeville circuit for 4 years (1920-24), I instantly knew it would be the basis of my first (and thus far only) one-woman show. I can safely say that writing and performing The Star of Happiness (named for her theme song) was my introduction to a feeling of disability pride, even if I didn’t yet have a connection to the disability community or know anything about #DisabilityPrideMonth.
Although the term “inspiration porn” had not yet been coined (by disabled activist Stella Young) when I performed The Star of Happiness in 2011, the show was totally anti-inspiration porn. It grappled with HK jokes. It dealt with her sexuality. It aggressively questioned what it might mean to be a blind spectacle. Since then, I’ve continued to be inspired by Helen Keller’s life and writings. She is one of the major spirit guides of There Plant eyes and her chapter “Smell, the Fallen Angel” from The World I Live In formed part of the inspiration for Aromatica Poetica. That’s the good kind of inspiration: something that pushes you to do new, exciting, wacky, and sometimes scary things.
Helen Keller was born on June 27, 1880. She lived a full, dynamic, activist life—she was a socialist and believed in workers’ rights, civil rights, women’s rights (including reproductive rights—and so much more. However, she died more than 50 years ago (in 1968) and I think sometimes her iconic figure tends to overshadow the many amazing disabled people who have come after her. As I wrote for the New York Times, too often the legacy of Helen Keller is used as an inspiration porn stick to knock other disabled people down. There was really no such thing as disability rights before she died in 1968. A lot has happened since then, not the least of which is the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.
So while we take a moment to say #HappyBirthdayHelenKeller, I hope you will join me in looking forward to #DisabilityPrideMonth which begins on Friday, July 1 and offers us a whole swath of time to think about and celebrate the living disabled people who are making art, making waves, making a stand, making a place for twenty percent of the population who are disabled and for the other 80 percent who may become disabled at any moment. Embracing disability as a cultural phenomenon that shapes our world as well as our bodies, is vital to a diverse, creative, and exciting society.
What do you have planned for #DisabilityPrideMonth? Let me know in the comments below!