By Craig Monger

A  documentary about the life, challenges, and accomplishments of Alabama's own Helen Keller will premiere Tuesday night on several platforms, including APT and PBS.

Most people’s knowledge of Helen Keller is limited to what they can remember from the 1960’s film “The Miracle Worker” or the Disney remake in 2000 under the same title. While it is true that Keller’s life and career began with her arduous education at the hands of Anne Sullivan, and Keller did experience a proverbial eureka moment at a water spicket, that is far from the whole story.

The life of Helen Keller was not without controversy: from her support of the civil rights movement to accusations of plagiarism; from her friendship with Mark Twain to her membership in the Socialist Party of America, Keller’s 87 years on this earth were full, rich, and complicated. She was a vigorous defender of the suffrage movement, a defender of the rights of American workers, and a strident advocate for the disabled.

Whether you know her as a novelist, a biographer, a witty activist, or simply a girl running her hands under a water pump, it is undeniable that Helen Keller is an immovable figure in Alabama, the nation, and the world.
The richness and complexity of Keller’s life, unknown to most, is precisely what motivated Public Broadcast Services (PBS) to release the documentary “American Masters: Becoming Helen Keller.” 

The film will premiere nationwide Tuesday, October 19 at 9 p.m. on Alabama Public Television (APT), the PBS website, and the PBS app. The documentary covers the full gamut of Keller’s life and accomplishments, warts, and all. The film will feature vocal performances, photos, archival clips, and interviews with historians, scholars, and disability rights activists. It will be narrated by author, psychotherapist, and disability rights advocate Rebecca Alexander. On-screen readings of Keller’s writings will be performed by Tony- and Emmy Award-winning actress Cherry Jones.

In honor of Keller’s life and work, the film will also have interpretations in American sign language, audio description by National Captioning Institute, and closed captioning provided by VITAC. The ASL interpretation will be done by actor and dancer Alexandria Wailes, as well as writer and rapper Warren Snipe.

“We are excited to bring this new look at Helen Keller’s life and legacy to people all across Alabama, most of whom have grown up with the story of the water pump at Ivy Green,” said APT interim executive director Phil Hutcheson. “And we have taken this opportunity to further advance our long-time efforts to increase the accessibility of our programs and services on-air, online, and in social media.”

The documentary comes after the substantial effort made by APT to make the film as accessible as possible. An advisory board was created by APT that featured representatives from Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind, The Alabama Federation of the Blind, the Helen Keller Birthplace, the Center for Low-Vision Rehabilitation, Lakeshore Rehabilitation Center, and others to assure the film would be accessible to all and could be used as a teaching tool for those with disabilities.