NEW YORK CNS – As the documentary "Becoming Helen Keller" compellingly demonstrates, its famous subject was far more complicated and interesting than the popular conception of her would suggest.

Providing viewers with a fresh look at Keller's admirable, though far from flawless, life serves as one apt way for PBS to observe National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

Engaging and illuminating, the "American Masters" presentation directed by Michael Pressman from a script by John Crowley and Mary McDonagh Murphy – premieres Tuesday, Oct. 19, 9–11 p.m. EDT. Since broadcast times may vary, however, viewers should consult their local listings.

Appropriately, the profile is formatted with closed captioning and audio descriptions to assist the visually impaired, making it widely accessible. Author and disability rights advocate Rebecca Alexander who, like Keller, is deaf and blind, narrates the biography. Emmy and Tony Award-winning actress Cherry Jones reads Keller's writings, adding luster to the production.

Keller, who died in 1968, age 87, was involved in a number of controversial causes – so her life story makes for mature fare. Parents weighing whether to allow older teens to watch the program, moreover, should know that it contains a frank discussion of the connection between blindness and sexually transmitted diseases.


"Becoming Helen Keller" begins with a 2009 ceremony at which a statue of the native Alabaman was dedicated in the U.S. Capitol's National Statuary Hall. The figure recalls a fabled moment from the Academy Award-winning 1962 film "The Miracle Worker."

In it, Keller's resolute teacher Annie Sullivan (Anne Bancroft) achieves a breakthrough in the education of her strong-willed young student, played by Patty Duke. Sullivan manages to make Keller understand the connection between the water flowing from a pump and the word for it, which Keller eventually both speaks and signs.

Heartwarming and inspirational as the scene may be, the screenwriters say, it "put (Keller) on a pedestal," leaving her "frozen in time." However incomplete the symbolism, though, Sullivan's influence on Keller as mentor, friend and business partner of 50 years, can hardly be overstated.

Among other things, Sullivan introduced Keller to John Macy who edited Keller's autobiography, "The Story of My Life" – the first of 12 books Keller would eventually publish. By then, Keller had succeeded in graduating from Harvard College's prestigious sister school, Radcliffe. Sullivan and Macy would later marry.

At least in part through her association with Sullivan and Macy, Keller was drawn to socialism and joined the Industrial Workers of the World labor union. She also backed the women's suffrage movement and opposed U.S. participation in World War I. Her public support for the NAACP alienated many of her fellow Southerners.

Keller's views on race may have been enlightened. But her initial support for eugenics was wholly at odds with a pro-life outlook.

In 1915, a doctor elected not to perform surgery on a disabled child, who later died. Commenting on the case, Keller said, "It is the possibilities of happiness, intelligence and power that give life its sanctity and they are absent in a poor, misshapen, paralyzed, unthinking creature."

Keller's views on this subject did, however, evolve. Thus, in a 1938 letter she wrote to the parents of another disabled child, Keller observed that "much of humanity's finest work has been wrought by a person with a severe handicap."

Whatever viewers think of Keller's politics, they will sympathize with her personal struggles. "Longingly," she once said, "I feel how much good I could have done if only I could have acquired normal speech."

"Becoming Helen Keller" also highlights the activist's overarching sense of solidarity. "What I say of the blind," she maintained, "applies equally to all hindered groups: the deaf, the impoverished, the mentally disturbed."

Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.