‘The Miracle Worker’ Showed Movies and TV Can Change How the World Sees Disability — for Better or Worse

When you grow up disabled, the names of other disabled or Deaf icons are always running through your mind — Helen Keller being one of the mainstays. Whether one is actually deaf or not, any perceived limitation causes someone to bring up the author and disability rights advocate, for good and ill.

My earliest memories of Keller come from the place I’ve loved and chosen to cover for my career: the movie screen. Patty Duke’s Oscar nominated performance in 1962’s “The Miracle Worker” wasn’t the first movie about a disabled person I saw, but it was the most ubiquitous. 

It’s an image that has become ingrained in nearly all discussions of disability representation on-screen. Despite the fact that 1 in 4 people in the United States have some form of disability, they only make up about 3.1 percent of on-screen portrayals, which is actually a 10-year high according to GLAAD. Media is the main conduit for people, disabled and abled, to see both themselves and the lives of people different from them. Keller’s persona, for a majority of people, is presented through “The Miracle Worker.”

There’s a compartmentalization that takes place when watching disabled narratives. Duke’s work as Keller encapsulates the “yes, but” mentality that disabled people approach when watching their stories unfold. Yes, Helen Keller’s story is important and having a movie showcases her accomplishments, but it’s told through the lens of an able-bodied figure (that being Anne Bancroft’s Oscar-winning role as Annie Sullivan). Yes, Duke’s performance is sensitive and ground-breaking, but it’s also reliant on a histrionic and uncomfortable pantomime of disability. 

Because of this compartmentalization and the lack of disabled performers on-screen and disabled people behind the camera, it’s easy for stereotypes and misinformation to proliferate, aided by past on-screen portrayals. Personally, it’s impossible for me to disclose my medical diagnosis without someone telling me “Oh, you have the ‘Unbreakable’ disease,” citing the 2000 Bruce Willis/Samuel L. Jackson feature wherein Jackson plays a man with brittle bones.

One of the more overt stereotypes perpetuated by the media, and one “The Miracle Worker” plays to the hilt, is the idea that people with disabilities are inherently both pitiful and inspirational. This isn’t unique to Helen Keller’s story, but goes all the way back to Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” with Tiny Tim becoming synonymous with all things darling, pathetic, and disabled in equal measure. 

It’s fascinating to remember that the movie with the most disabled people on-screen remains 1932’s horror feature “Freaks.” Though it is sold as a feature to scare able-bodied audiences, to many disabled viewers it’s a sensitive and audacious examination of disabled exploitation, and coming out in the 1930s no less. It is only as more disabled people are writing about and starting to break the glass ceiling of Hollywood that we’re able to deconstruct the stereotypes and find the nuance in stories that maybe were dated for their time.

Currently, the Apple TV+ movie “CODA,” about a young woman growing up as the sole hearing person in an all-Deaf family, is giving Deaf and disabled audiences the opportunity to see themselves without pity or something to overcome. And also without presenting a wealthy family — many disabled narratives onscreen have centered on wealthy disabled people, as if money makes one inherently more interesting, such as such “Me Before You” and “The Upside.”


Helen Keller (left) "hears" Anne Sullivan by feeling the vibrations on her lips. Anne Sullivan was born one hundred years ago on April 14, 1866. As the "Teacher" of the famous Helen Keller, who was both deaf and blind, Anne was to become a source of deep inspiration to the deaf-blind and their teachers. (AP Photo)

Helen Keller (left) and Anne Sullivan

AP

This brings me back to Keller and “The Miracle Worker.” Is the movie problematic? Of course, it’s still told by abled, sighted, and hearing people. But to see it just through that perspective not only limits Keller’s significance in her story, but would permanently close the door to her numerous accomplishments. For several generations, they only know Keller through the movie, and even then the fear is that a history of questionable looks at disability have corroded audiences from looking at disabled people off the screen.

Earlier this year, social media was ablaze with various TikTok videos proclaiming that not only was Helen Keller not deaf and blind, but that she might not have existed at all. This isn’t in the same vein as people discovering that, yes, the Titanic did actually sink. It’s indicative of the rampant ableism that still exists in society. I’ve shocked acquaintances by driving a car or even having the career I have because they’ve never actually seen a disabled person doing that. Much like today’s teens questioning how Keller could write books without being able to see and hear. Ableism runs on misinformation, “fake news” if you will, and complex portrayals of disability on-screen can cut down on much of it in future. 

In the end, I appreciate the groundwork “The Miracle Worker” laid out but, like all pieces of entertainment, it should be just the beginning. Movies’ significance in opening up the eyes of the world to the disabled is a huge leap forward. They remain the clearest way for us to learn about people who aren’t like us. But it’s also on the audience to look deeper and go outside of what they’ve seen to learn about the subject itself. I’ve been fortunate to not only watch movies telling disabled stories, but have told my own, and hopefully inspired others to watch movies more closely. 

This article is published in conjunction with PBS’ “American Masters” series. A version of this article also appears at the American Masters website.

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