Diane Scharper, who teaches writing and literature in Towson University's Department of English, has compiled an anthology of memoirs called "Reading Lips and Other Ways to Overcome a Disability" for the Helen Keller Foundation.
How did you become involved with the Helen Keller Foundation for Research and Education?
"In 2004 my son Philip Scharper Jr., M.D., an ophthalmologist, had a retina fellowship at the foundation, which was founded in Alabama in 1988 to further the knowledge necessary to treat eye diseases. Phil had shown several of my books—including the Songs of Myself memoir anthology—to the president, Robert Morris, M.D.
"When my husband and I met Dr. Morris, he suggested that many Americans knew little about Helen Keller and her struggles to overcome the limitations imposed by blindness and deafness. I suggested a national memoir competition as a way to raise awareness about Keller and the foundation’s mission. Dr. Morris then asked if I’d coordinate the project, and I agreed. Over a period of nearly four years I organized a competition, helped to select the winners and compiled and edited the collection. I had a great deal of help and support from the university and the foundation, but it was a very time-consuming and challenging task."
Who entered the competition?
"I sought submissions from adults of any age who had dealt with a disability or who had a family member who had. I advertised in national publications, but it became an international competition as the word spread around the globe. Between November 2004 and June 2005 the English department received nearly 300 entries, including poems and essays from people in Scotland, Australia, New Zealand India, Indonesia and Israel. We heard from people with a variety of disabilities—including blindness, deafness, birth defects, Parkinson’s disease, and accident injuries."
How did you pick the memoirs that appear in the anthology?
"I enlisted the help of my memoir-writing and review-writing classes, which were composed mainly of graduate students, to read the submissions. Professional writing student Joyce Hammock and my former student and friend Nancy Kavanaugh O’Neil were especially helpful. My son (and co-editor) helped me review what the students selected. He also checked all of the clinical information mentioned in the submissions. We selected the three winners, then forwarded 50 submissions to the Helen Keller Foundation, where they were further culled to 30. One woman opted not to have her work published, so we ended up with 29 poems and/or essays in the book."
Why should we read Reading Lips?
"The memoirs in this book are uplifting, even though they’re grounded in pain. That all of these pieces of writing record people who “live” with their disabilities, as opposed to merely “suffering” from them, is in itself a kind of miracle. They believe they are enabled—rather than disabled—by their disabilities. Helen Keller spent much of her life publicizing that belief. Because she talked about her blindness and deafness, she changed the way people thought about all disabilities. As Dr. Morris of the Helen Keller Foundation observed, these memoir writers are continuing that same lesson in her name."
How has this project affected you?
"I was stricken by polio as a child, and the doctors said I would never walk again. So I’ve always been interested in hearing about others who overcame disabilities and beat the odds. It has been a privilege to read memoirs from men and women from all over the world who have created meaningful lives out of misfortune."
Diane Scharper is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her other books include "Radiant: Prayer Poems" and "Songs of Myself: Episodes from the Edge of Adulthood." She also writes a monthly column about books of local interest for the "Baltimore Sun."