© 2024 New England Public Media

FCC public inspection files:

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact hello@nepm.org or call 413-781-2801.
PBS, NPR and local perspective for western Mass.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Changing Language of Disability

Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan

Watch here:

From Generation to Generation: The Changing Language of Disability Wednesday, Nov. 10 at 7 p.m. on ZoomFree and open to the public

“Becoming Helen Keller” from American Masters, which premiered on NEPM TV on Oct. 19, explores the complex life and legacy of the author, advocate and human rights pioneer. It also offers a glimpse into how the world viewed the disability community during Keller’s lifetime. Join NEPM for a discussion about how the language of disability has changed since the beginning of the twentieth century — and continues to change.

When Helen Keller graduated from college in 1904, terms such as “defective,” “degenerate,” “idiot,” “feeble-minded,” “shut ins,” “dumb,” “cripple” and “moral imbecile” were commonly used to describe people with disabilities. This dictionary-driven conversation will examine the fluidity of the words we use to describe disability communities and experiences.

Merriam-Webster editor (and host of the Word Matters podcast and NEPM's Jazz à la Mode) Peter Sokolowski will lead the virtual discussion with author and disability advocate Fred Pelka, activist Lawrence Carter-Long, and Laura Rauscher, director of disability services/ADA coordinator at Smith College.


Peter Sokolowski began working with dictionaries as the first-ever French-language editor at Merriam-Webster in 1994, and he has since contributed definitions and articles to many of the company’s reference works. Once it was discovered that he was less preternaturally shy than others on the editorial staff, he began answering questions to the press, giving workshops about dictionaries and the English language to educators, and otherwise speaking out loud on the subject of words, including as a roaming pronouncer for spelling bees worldwide. Peter attended the University of Paris and earned his M.A. in French Literature at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Additionally, Peter is a host of NEPM’s Jazz à la Mode and a host of Word Matters, the popular podcast that is produced by Merriam-Webster and New England Public Media.

Fred Pelka is a person with disabilities who began his work in the disability community in 1983 as a volunteer at the Boston Center for Independent Living. He is the author of The ABC-CLIO Companion to the Disability Rights Movement, The Civil War Letters of Charles F. Johnson, Invalid Corps and What We Have Done: An Oral History of the Disability Rights Movement. His most recent book, A Different Blaze, is a collection of his poetry. This past winter, he taught a course on disability advocacy and its history at UMass Amherst’s University Without Walls.

Lawrence Carter-Long has been on the front lines of popular culture and social change since the age of five when he was drafted to be a poster child for a disability-related charity campaign. A lifelong activist, Lawrence has been a modern dancer, radio show host and producer, and was the curator/co-host of “The Projected Image: A History of Disability on Film.” Formerly the public affairs specialist for the National Council on Disability, he joined the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund in 2017 as director of communications.
Laura Rauscher, M.Ed., is director of disability services/ADA coordinator at Smith College and adjunct faculty in the Smith School for Social Work, where she teaches courses on disability policy and ableism. As a disabled person and a feminist working in the disability rights, public health, and higher education fields for more than 30 years, Laura has dedicated her career to advancing equality and inclusion of people with disabilities in society. Before joining Smith College, she was director of the Office of Disability and Health at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.


American Masters: Becoming Helen Keller delves beyond the mythologized disability icon to present a critical look at her rich, decades-long career and some of its controversies, including her support of socialism and her changing positions on eugenics. The film reveals little-known details of Keller’s personal life and examines her public persona and advocacy, including the progressive reforms she helped achieve. Speaking out for civil rights at great personal cost, Keller supported women’s suffrage, the NAACP, access to health care and assistive technology as a human right, and workers’ rights as a member of the Socialist Party of America and the labor union Industrial Workers of the World.

Stream the Film

NEPM is grateful to the following advisors who helped shape and plan this event:  

  • John Sears, board member, Disability History Museum, Conway, Massachusetts
  • Richard Cairns, civics and social studies curriculum and instruction specialist, Emerging America, Northampton, Massachusetts
  • David Glassberg, professor of history, UMass Amherst
  • Ezekiel Kimball, associate professor of higher education, UMass Amherst
  • Aaron Rubenstein, head of special collections and university archives, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, UMass Amherst
  • Samuel Redman, associate professor of history, UMass Amherst  
  • Graham Warder, associate professor of history, Keene State College

Get suggestions for further study here »