Friday, October 09, 2009

Keeping Helen Company in Statuary Hall

[Visual description: black-and-white photograph of the statue of Father Damien in the National Statuary Hall]

A statue of Helen Keller was unveiled this week in the US Capitol's Statuary Hall, with great fanfare, because "It’s the first statue in the Capitol showing a person with a disability." Oh?

Regular readers of this blog will know that statements like this send me scurrying to check that list twice. I suspected that she was only the first famously-disabled person represented in Statuary Hall, because disability just isn't that rare. The difficulty of naming a definite "first" also reflects the very fluid nature of disability as a social category.

But even that iffy "famous for being disabled, like really disabled" distinction isn't quite true. Father Damien (1840-1889), Roman Catholic priest, quite famously contracted leprosy during his mission work on Molokai. Damien's statue, by Marisol Escobar, has been in the Capitol since 1969. The stylized bronze figure shows Damien holding a cane with a gnarled hand, and gives some indication of his facial scarring as well.

Hard to call the new Keller statue "the first" if Father Damien and his cane have been there for forty years, isn't it?

UPDATE: Wheelie Catholic also wrote about Father Damien this week--seems he's in the news.

No comments: