Happy Helen Keller DeafBlind Awareness Week!
Let’s Celebrate Authenticity and Intersectionality in Her Honor
Sondra Malling, LCPC, BC-DMT, GL-CMA
June 21st – June 27th, 2020 is Helen Keller DeafBlind Awareness Week. Most of us know about Helen Keller from watching The Miracle Worker in elementary school and having her touted as an inspirational figure. She is held up as a model disabled person who pulled herself up by her bootstraps to overcome adversity, but doesn’t even get to be the title character in her own movie. In fact, the “miracle worker” in the title actually refers to her teacher, Anne Sullivan!
Did you know that Helen Keller was actually a political activist, socialist, feminist, and disability rights advocate who also championed workers’ rights and racial equality? She was a founding member of the ACLU and an early supporter of the NAACP. She examined and wrote extensively about the roots of inequality, disability, and poverty inherent in our society, but was often dismissed, maligned, and infantilized in the press due to her DeafBlindness. You can read a detailed examination of Helen Keller’s activism and political legacy in this article (NOTE: if you are using a screenreader, the full link to the article and all other links are at the bottom of this blog post). Also learn more about another incredible DeafBlind disability rights advocate who is killing it with her Harvard Law degree in the modern-day, Haben Girma!
So what does this have to do with a therapy blog? My purpose in writing this blog is twofold: first, to encourage the reader to honor the authentic parts of ourselves that others dismiss and malign, and, second, to honor Helen Keller’s activist spirit and discuss its role in the therapy room.
Many of us receive messages growing up that cause us to shrink or hide certain parts of ourselves. “Don’t be so loud,” “Don’t act so feminine,” “That’s only for boys,” “It’s not polite to talk religion or politics at the dinner table,” and many more statements. These statements from parents, caregivers, teachers, peers, and other influential figures may cause us to suppress our authentic thoughts, feelings, and opinions, and even our authentic selves. In the therapy room, however, you can be free to be yourself. Your therapist is there to support you in unburdening these shrunken, hidden parts and integrating them into your true self so you can move about the world whole and true. This process can be challenging, and you might experience some of the backlashes that Helen Keller did from those in your life who are not accustomed to your truth. But this unburdening and living authentically is truly liberating and is, in a sense, a form of individualist activism.
To address activism in the therapy room on a more collective level is a bigger challenge and one that I will fully admit I am still grappling with as a therapist. But in light of recent brutal police murders against Black lives, White therapists like myself can no longer afford to be silent, lest we are complicit with White supremacists and other colonial paradigms that oppress the very clients we are attempting to serve. I am committing myself to actively learning about and addressing my own privilege, as well as the intersectionality of various oppressions such as racism, heterosexism, and ableism and how they impact the lived realities of people who are different from me in a variety of ways. To this end, I have started reading Oppression and the Body, which is an especially important resource for dance/movement therapists like myself to become aware of how the trauma of oppression impacts the body. In order to truly see my clients in all of their embodied experiences, I must understand how oppression manifests in the body. I commit to learning and growing in this area, and you can expect a follow-up blog post once I’m done reading!
I also commit to listening to BIPOC voices and voices of other marginalized communities, both within and without the therapy room. To this end, I would like to highlight Sista Afya, a community mental wellness organization focused on “sustaining the mental wellness of Black women through building community, sharing information, and connecting Black women to quality mental wellness services.” I would also like to link to PFLAG’s list of hotlines for the LBGTQIA+ community. It is imperative that we support mental health resources for these and other populations who have historically been ignored, and sometimes actively harmed, by the counseling and therapy field.
I do these things to grow as a person and as a therapist, and to honor the activist spirit of Helen Keller on National DeafBlind Awareness week. I ask you to join me in educating yourself and donating time and resources to anti-racist, anti-homophobic, anti-ableist, and other intersectional causes. If you are interested in learning more about a lesser-known group of people who experience oppression, the Helen Keller National Center website is a good starting point on DeafBlindness. I encourage you to learn more about the needs and lived experiences of this unique community as a way to support intersectionality, diversity, and inclusion.
To learn more about Sondra’s thoughts activism inside and outside the therapy room, schedule an appointment! Sondra can provide therapy in American Sign Language, Signed English, Simultaneous Communication, Tactile American Sign Language, and spoken English.
Links, in order of appearance:
The Politics of Helen Keller – https://isreview.org/issue/96/politics-helen-keller
Haben Girma’s website – https://habengirma.com/
The book Oppression and the Body – https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/562447/oppression-and-the-body-by-christine-caldwell-and-lucia-bennett-leighton/
Feature Photo: New York Times Co./Getty Images