Inclusion and Access at the Core of ‘Becoming Helen Keller’

October 14, 2021

Becoming Helen Keller

American Masters: Becoming Helen Keller brings the complex life and legacy of the human rights pioneer to life, with full American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation, audio description by the National Captioning Institute and closed captioning by VITAC. The documentary airs at 9 pm Tuesday, October 19, on PBS (check local listings), and the PBS Video app.

Following the disability community’s mantra “nothing about us, without us,” The WNET Group took an inclusive approach to producing the film, 16 years in the making. “Becoming Helen Keller” is narrated by author, psychotherapist and disability rights advocate Rebecca Alexander, who is deaf and blind, with ASL interpretation by actor and dancer Alexandria Wailes and writer and rapper Warren “WAWA” Snipe, who are both deaf.

 Rapper Warren “WAWA” Snipe provides ASL interpretation in 'Becoming Helen Keller' | American Masters | PBS

Through photos, archival film clips and interviews, the documentary reveals little-known details of Helen Keller’s personal life, far beyond the iconic moment at a water pump when she first recognized that things have names. The film examines Keller’s public persona and advocacy, including her support for women’s suffrage, the NAACP, workers’ rights, and access to health care and assistive technology. Tony-winning actress Cherry Jones gives voice to Helen Keller’s words.

True to public media’s commitment to universal access, marketing for “Becoming Helen Keller” also integrates ASL, audio description and captions, and related resources for PBS LearningMedia are also being made accessible by and for people with disabilities.

The series website will have an accessible landing page, including tools for changing color contrast and text size, and an additional version of the film with extended audio description will also be available to stream.

A virtual event featuring highlights from the film and a discussion moderated by film narrator Rebecca Alexander will be held at 7 pm EDT on Monday, October 18. The panel includes Kirk Adams, president and CEO, American Foundation for the Blind; Alexandria Wailes, who provides ASL interpretation in the film, and writer and poet Kathi Wolfe. Open-captions and ASL interpretation will be provided throughout, with basic and descriptive transcripts available upon request. The event is free, but registration is required.

With support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, The WNET Group developed a toolkit for public television stations and provided grants to eight PBS stations to partner with organizations and experts in their communities to produce accessible companion content for broadcast and digital platforms, including videos optimized for social media:

  • Alabama Public Television is producing several interstitial programs on local members of the disability community and is creating two social media-first videos, one featuring an animation of a staff member with low vision describing his experience working at APT, and another featuring the historic Helen Keller house in Tuscumbia, Ala.
  • Iowa PBS is profiling three families from the disability community in a documentary called Living DeafBlind in Iowa, premiering on Monday, October 18. Iowa PBS is producing social-optimized versions of their interstitials, as well as social-first video telling the history of Helen Keller’s first visit to Iowa in 1925, in which she successfully lobbied for a bill that would result in the Iowa Commission for the Blind.  
  • WCNY (Syracuse, NY) is producing interstitials of members of local disability communities discussing topics such as the Deaf Nepali community, common myths and misconceptions about disability, and communication etiquette. The station created a social-optimized version of the communication etiquette video for social media.
  • WFYI (Indianapolis, IN) is producing a half-hour program featuring members of the Indianapolis disability community, including a college and world champion athlete who is vision impaired, a television show host and a local filmmaker who have visual disabilities, and a hurricane Katrina survivor who advocates for voting rights for all persons with disabilities, including herself.
  • WGCU (Fort Myers, Florida) is producing a program, Deaf, Blind and Thriving, featuring facts about the disability community, common misconceptions, and local members of the disability community sharing their stories. The 30-minute program premieres directly after "Becoming Helen Keller." 
  • WQED (Pittsburgh, PA) is producing "Love What You Do: Shy's Story," a profile of local pianist Shy Abram and his perspective on life as a blind person with autism. The 11-minute, 15-second film premieres on air and online on Monday, October 18.   
  • WQLN (Erie, PA) is producing two interstitials featuring local community members discussing their relationship to disability, including a deaf college student, hearing parents of deaf children, as well as the staff and clients at a local center for independent living, a local audiology practice, and a local home for children and adults with disabilities.
  • WXXI (Rochester, NY) is producing two interstitials on students and faculty at the Rochester Institute for Technology who are doing cutting-edge research and design on accessibility and technology.

Photo credits: Helen Keller watering plant, 1907, courtesy of Library of Congress. Alexandria Wailes, who provides ASL interpretation of Helen Keller's words, photo by Jeremy Folmer. 

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