Article Review: “What We Talk about When We Talk about Helen Keller: Disabilities in Children’s Biographies”

By: Christine Nix 

         Peter Kunze’s “What We Talk about When We Talk about Helen Keller: Disabilities in Children’s Biographies” claims children’s biographies that are written about people with disabilities, such as Helen Keller, promote ideas of ableism. Kunze addresses that Helen Keller is classified by disability activists as falling into the category of a “supercrip” (305). The label of a “supercrip” occurs when “mainstream media portrays certain persons with disabilities as victors over their respective situations” (Kunze 305). Helen Keller is viewed often by society as one who defied adversity, implying that her disability was to be overcome (Kunze 305). In exploring the representation of Helen Keller in children’s biographies, Kunze refers to seven biographies of Helen Keller. Issues presented in the biographies of Helen Keller and other disabled subjects that fall into the “supercrip” category are omitting information, creating a product instead of informing on a person’s life, and removing the disabled subject from being viewed as normal (Kunze 307). The seven editions of Helen Keller biographies discussed use visual or melodramatic devises for non-disabled audiences and do not represent Helen Keller’s reality. For example, one children’s biography, A Girl Named Helen Keller, includes the illustration of young Helen Keller facing a corner with her hands pressed against the wall (Kunze 309-310).  This image portrays Helen Keller as trapped and evokes audiences to pity her. Audiences do not infer from these children’s biographies how Helen Keller experienced her life as a deaf and blind woman. Another issue with Helen Keller’s representation is that these biographies refer to more about childhood. They ignore or brush over much of Helen Keller’s adult life (Kunze 311). Biographies of Helen Keller can appear targeted for audiences to learn about Helen Keller being deaf and blind versus the audience learning about who Helen Keller truly was.

This article criticizes Helen Keller biographies, but Kunze does not explicitly state what should be done to these biographies. Should these biographies that do not suitably present Helen Keller be disregarded and removed from classrooms: if this is so, are there any biographies of Helen Keller that present her story appropriately? We do not get an answer. Instead we are to only know that most Helen Keller biographies present her as a child and ignore her life as an empowered, educated adult. In considering this matter, Kunze does address that there are issues within the sub-genre of children’s biographies. It is possible that the reason Kunze does not include an example of a children’s biography that appropriately represents Helen Keller is that there is not one in existence.  

    What can we as parents, advocates, or students grasp from this article? What is essential to take away is Helen Keller faced struggles with and because of society. A recurring element often present in Helen Keller children’s biographies is her struggle with her disability and functioning in society. Kunze encourages all to see how the mindset of an able-bodied society caused Helen Keller to experience these struggles (310). It is society and the media that has turned Helen Keller’s story into one of inspiration; this removes her and her disability away from terms of normalcy and ability. This article helps us to recognize the “supercrip” role that she has been associated with for so long and remove her from that. Kunze provides guidance to authors of children’s biographies that they must focus their work on the person. Regarding disability, authors must remove themselves from ableist ideas and use their work to incorporate the ideas of normalcy for disabled persons (Kunze 316). Ultimately within this article, Kunze advises authors to remove the ableist associations of Helen Keller’s disability as their subject but focus simply on Helen Keller (313).

                                                            

          Works Cited

Kunze, P. C. “What We Talk about When We Talk about Helen Keller: Disabilities in Children’s

Biographies.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, vol. 38 no. 3, 2013, pp.

304-318. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/chq.2013.0040

Characterizing Mama: Representing the Intellectually Disabled Mother in So B. I

By: Christine Nix

So B. It, a children’s novel by Sarah Weeks, is a first-person narrative of a twelve-year-old girl, Heidi It. Heidi’s mother is an intellectually disabled woman who calls herself So B. It.  Throughout the narrative, Heidi has a curiosity to know where she and her Mama came from.  Mama has in her vocabulary an unknown word: soof. Heidi is determined to discover the meaning and origin of soof. Eventually Heidi discovers her Mama’s past and learns her Mama’s name, Sophia Demuth. Although Heidi gets the answers she seeks, the novel allows us to question the importance of understanding family history or valuing family in the present. We, as young readers, parents to young readers, disability activists, and/or students focusing on disability studies, can explore disability and the familial relationship of having a disabled parent as we read Heidi’s story. The character Mama in So B. It allows for the exploration of identity for an intellectually disabled person as well as an individual’s ability, agency, and normalcy.

Through Heidi’s narration, she reveals the dynamics of her and her Mama’s relationship.  Heidi, throughout the novel, is coming to put her mother into terms of normalness. We can consider normalness as recognizing that disabled persons can interact and be included in social structures (Adams et al.132).  Heidi at times puts her mother into the category of abnormal. This frustration becomes more evident as the novel progresses, for Heidi shouts at her mother when Mama cannot tell her who is in a photograph (Weeks 62). Heidi considers Mama abnormal because she in unable to communicate with her. Heidi even categorizes herself as normal because she considers herself able to pursue the answers she needs.  In an argument with their neighbor Bernadette, who has agoraphobia, Heidi states angrily “if you really cared about me you’d want me to be normal” (Weeks 88). We are not to approve of Heidi’s perspective in these moments; her frustrations and her current feelings do not promote inclusiveness. Mama dies while Heidi is away and, there is a shift in her attitude. Heidi comes to terms with the fact that her relationship with Mama should have been more important than her search of her family’s history. In losing her Mama, Heidi learns that knowing someone and knowing about someone is not the same. By the end of the novel, Heidi puts her family dynamic into terms of normalness and becomes appreciative of who her mother was.

         Since this novel journeys to discover the background of Mama, the role of identity for a disabled person is presented in this children’s novel. Sophia is featured in dialogue and given personality traits such as being an affectionate mother and having hobbies such as coloring (Weeks 30). Furthermore, Sophia possesses relatable characteristics. Heidi informs us that her mother “hated to wear socks, rainy days made her anxious, and she’d do almost anything you asked her to if you promised her a Jujyfruit after – as long as it wasn’t a green one” (Weeks 37).  These attributes of Sophia can allow us to view her in terms of normalcy; for young readers, it can present the concept that the intellectually disabled are in fact like the non-intellectually disabled. By connecting Mama’s disability with her identity and making her character relatable, we can comprehend that people with disabilities are relatable. Thus, Mama having these characteristics displays her humanity, a humanity that can be denied to disabled persons in media.  

    Although Mama is represented well, by her death Mama cannot be included fully into terms of normalness. By dying, Mama becomes abnormal because she is no longer living; this removes her from being like the rest of the characters that are living. Another way that excludes Mama from normalcy is that once she dies Heidi becomes more mature.  So, once Heidi loses her intellectually disabled mother, Heidi loses the innocence of her childhood. This challenges us to consider Sophia’s character represents innocence. Although innocence is not necessarily demeaning, to have a disabled character be symbolic of innocence does not bring them into normalcy. Instead portrayals of disabled persons as innocent can cause attitudes of pity or admiration towards the disabled. Additionally, the article, “Institutionalizing Maternity” suggests that the novel portrays that the burdensome task of taking care of Mama is removed by her death (Potter & Parsons). This is an area that the text is problematic. Even though the novel gives Mama humanity that allows her to be viewed as relatable and normal, Mama’s death suggests that life without the disabled is less demanding.

While Mama’s death poorly represents the intellectually disabled, her sexuality is represented well in the text.  With Mama being a mother there is representation of Mama’s sexuality.  This allows the intellectually disabled to be viewed as sexual beings. For a young audience, the idea of sexual representation could seem mature. However, it is not that the novel goes into depth of the topic of sex. No. The importance of Sophia having sexuality is that it does not deny her sexuality. Due to her disability, her sexuality can be viewed as being suppressed or not part of her life. The text, through the character Mr. Hill, provides an ableist perspective and allows us to see a disabled person’s sexual nature be suppressed. Mr. Hill responds to Heidi about his intellectually disabled son being her father by stating, “I thought it was impossible… They were like children themselves” (Week 215-216). We can see this statement as yes, they were young and having a baby, but we can also read these words as denying the intellectually disabled sexuality because they are considered childlike or innocent. By Weeks including the ableist perspective of Mr. Hill, the text conveys the absurd idea of disabled persons not having sexuality.  Clearly by Sophia and Elliot having sexual relations and producing a child, this supports that disabled persons are sexual beings as non-disabled persons are too.  

In consideration of agency, there are examples of Mama’s insight and capability to love.  Why can we consider Mama’s ability to love meaningful? It is significant to the narrative because it brings the intellectually disabled into normalness because love is a universal feeling.  Mama’s ability to love gives her a sense of agency. More importantly, Sophia chooses who she loves such as Heidi’s father, Elliot. Additionally, Mama’s word for love is her nickname given by Elliot, soof. Sophia calls love a different name, but the feeling is still the same. Heidi explains this notion as she claims, “All along she had a word for love – it was just different from the one everyone else was using…Soof wasn’t Mama’s name; soof was Mama’s name for love” (Weeks 236).  Mama expresses the capability for the intellectually disabled to love, regardless how the intellectually disabled express their love.    

Mama’s character can be classified as having ability. However, we must recognize that the novel portrays Mama as being unable to do certain things due to her disability. Heidi explains that Mama cannot tell time, tie her shoes, and she cannot read (Weeks 10-11). The novel makes it known through Mama’s vocabulary list that she does not always have the words to express her thoughts and feelings (Weeks 244). However, the novel appropriately acknowledges that Sophia has ability, and the novel provides a focus on what Sophia can do. Bernadette helps Sophia raise Heidi; Bernadette is also able to teach Sophia skills such as opening cans (Weeks 6). The novel explains that Mama learned to brush her teeth and comb her hair (Weeks 34). Mama has ability; she can learn and develop skills that promote her competency. Mama’s learning signifies that the intellectually disabled are learners too, and they have the capacity to be able to learn and develop skills even as they become older. This notion of the intellectually disabled being lifelong learners promotes inclusiveness in education.

Overall, this children’s novel gives the character Mama an identity, agency, and ability.  Besides Mama’s death and Heidi’s obstacles that cause her to consider Mama abnormal, Sophia’s character well represents the intellectually disabled. The issues that are present with this text prevent Mama from fully being considered normal. Furthermore, Heidi’s issues with have an intellectually disabled mother are removed once Sophia dies. These issues with Heidi’s family dynamic that last for most of the novel also prohibit Mama’s character from being included into terms of normalness. Moreover, there are portions of the children’s novel that are unrealistic, but when it comes to Mama’s character we can agree that Sophia’s character appears relatable.  Mama’s character allows us to recognize disabled persons are not one dimensional beings, but disabled persons have depth and complexity just as non-disabled persons do.

 

Works Cited

Adams, Rachel, Benjamin Reiss, and David Serlin. “Normal.” Keywords for Disability Studies. New York: New York UP, 2015. 130-32. Print.

Potter, T. & Parsons, E. “Institutionalizing Maternity: The Treatment of Mothers with Mental Illness in Contemporary Novels for Children.” Feminist Formations, vol. 23 no. 1, 2011, pp. 118-137. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/ff.2011.0003

Weeks, Sarah. So B. It: a Novel. New York, Laura Geringer Books, 2004. Print.

YouTube Videos for Parents

By: Christine Nix

 

  While all these videos discuss and present various kinds of disabilities among children, these videos also provide support for parents. Additionally, these videos aid in encouraging parents to be advocates for their child’s education and inclusion in society.    

Disabled Children and Their Parents Discuss Disability Representation in Literature

Most notably, this video highlights the lack of representation of disabled children in children’s literature and how this affects both parents and children. This video raises awareness that it is desired among disabled children and their parents to have representation of disabled children in media. In this short video, the video portrays that disabled children, like all children, need representation for a sense of relatability and to truly believe that they are appreciated in society.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4E9xYFTwrF0

Sesame Street & Autism: Highlight Reel

Although this is a kid-friendly video, this video is informative for parents as well. With brief interviews of parents that have children with autism, this video portrays that every family is different but still a family. Families that have a member with autism in them are still able to experience love and have fun just as any family can. Watching this video, parents can see that they are not alone. This video encourages parents to value their family situation and know that their family unit is important.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RuV8AddbXIs

Disabling segregation: Dan Habib at TEDx Amoskeag Millyard  

Dan Habib, the father of a child with cerebral palsy, discusses what it means to be an advocate.  He stresses that parents need to be advocates for their child and their child’s education. This video emphasizes the success all students can have with inclusion of disabled and non-disabled children in the classroom. As a father, Habib connects with his audience the importance for his child to feel a sense of belonging to the community and the classroom and that all children should feel this way. For parents this video portrays the true potential of all children, disabled and non-disabled, that can be achieved with having high expectations of children’s learning abilities.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=izkN5vLbnw8

Being a Supportive Parent

A takeaway from this video is that every family member has an important role within their family. For parents with children that have disabilities there are relatable elements in this video.  The parent featured in this video, Ricky, talks about stress and discusses the commitment that must be made for all the members of the family. Ricky’s youngest daughter is autistic, and he stresses the importance of patience. In watching this video, Ricky serves as a role model for parents because of his devoted attitude towards his family.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PL5s1QExUSM

Helping Kids With Learning Disabilities Flourish

In this live chat video David Flink promotes his book Thinking Differently. He discusses what is was like to be a child with a learning disability. This video informs that it is essential to know that a child with a learning disability needs to be involved and included in their education. In promoting his book, Flink explains that learning takes place in all different ways. This video motivates parents to be advocates for their child, but this video encourages parents to raise their child to be advocates for their disability and success.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4X6qKBvmAP0

Time to Talk – A Parent’s Perspective on Children’s Mental Illness: Liza Long at TEDxSanAntonio 2013

An immediate takeaway from this video is that there is a discomfort in society in talking and addressing mental illness in children and adults. Liza Long speaks about her son who has a mental illness. Although Long does not provide the specific mental illness of her son, she expresses the reality of being a mother that has mental illness in her family. This video allows for parents and viewers to discuss and make mental illness more inclusive in society. Additionally, this video informs parents they should be uncomfortable with the perception of mental illness in society and how children who have mental illness are viewed. The call here is to become advocates and begin discussions for mental illness among children.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EkL6Qx07aiU

Kristi Rieger Campbell Reading “What It Means To Be A Special Needs Mom”

This heartfelt video expresses the various emotions of being a mom with a special needs child. The emotions of comparing a special needs child to a non-disabled child is expressed in this video. Kristi Rieger explains that parents must value who their child is instead of holding onto an idea of who they thought their child would be. What to remember from this video is that it is okay to have all these emotions, but valuing a child for who they are is most important and most rewarding for parents and their children.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=phUwXFcnaL0