Anecdota

Laughter is the Best Medicine

Why I used to love making jokes about Helen Keller


And now to another in our “Brief but Spectacular
Series”. Tonight, we hear from Georgina Kleege. She’s a lecturer in the English department
at the University of California, Berkeley. Her forthcoming book is “More Than Meets the
Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art.” (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) GEORGINA KLEEGE, LECTURER, UC BERKELEY DEPARTMENT
OF ENGLISH: 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 jus that I tend to look like I know where I’m going. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I would agree with that. (LAUGHTER) KLEEGE: My name is Georgina Kleege and this
is my brief but spectacular take on blindness. (END VIDEOTAPE) WOODRUFF: And we thank you, Georgina. And you can watch additional “Brief but Spectacular”
episodes on our Web site, pbs.org/newshour/brief.

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