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It’s Not the Fights You Dreamed Of, But Those You Really Fought

Bill Scott continues his series on radical song with a look a Si Kahn’s ‘It’s What You Do With What You’ve Got’ bringing in some of the history of disabled people’s movements and a look at Helen Keller, whose socialism is a lesser known part of her famous story.

It’s What You Do With What You’ve Got
(Si Kahn)

You must know someone like him
He was tall and strong and lean
With a body like a greyhound
And a mind so sharp and keen
But his heart, just like a laurel
Grew twisted ‘round itself
‘Til almost everything he did
Brought pain to someone else

Well, it’s not just what you’re born with
It’s what you choose to bear
It’s not how big your share is
It’s how much you can share
It’s not the fights you dreamed of
It’s those you’ve really fought
It’s not what you’ve been given
It’s what you do with what you’ve got

Oh, what’s the use of two strong legs
If you only run away?
And what’s the use of the finest voice
If you’ve nothing good to say?
What’s the use in strength of muscle
If you only push and shove?
And what’s the use in two good ears
If you can’t hear those you love?

Between those who use their neighbors
And those who use the cane?
Between those in constant power
And those in constant pain?
Between those who run to glory
And those who cannot run?
Tell me which ones are the cripples
And which ones touch the sun?

Which ones touch the sun?

Si Kahn’s song asks probing questions about non-disabled people’s continuing prejudices against those with impairments. Disabled people are one of the most oppressed groups under capitalism. From the onset of the industrial era capitalism had little use for those who were born with, or acquired, physical, sensory, or learning impairments.

Whereas previously disabled people had been part of families and in Britain the first Poor Laws had granted them rights to social assistance (and to beg!) now the prevailing ideology viewed them as useless and a source of shame. Instead of being part of families and local communities they were removed from sight and put in institutions such as lunatic asylums and poor-houses, there to remain from childhood until their hoped for early deaths. If lucky they might be given baskets to weave or samplers to sew in communities purposefully separated from “normal” society. If, as was more likely, they were unlucky they would be left to fend for themselves imprisoned in acute squalor.

The Social Darwinists of the late 19th Century not only saw disabled people as unfit for survival but a potential threat to the gene pool and developed into the Eugenics movement. Impairments of any sort were viewed as limiting intelligence - for example those with hearing impairments were not only “deaf” but “dumb”. In Britain politicians like Churchill, and Fabian intellectuals like George Bernard Shaw, H. G Wells and Marie Stopes called for the sterilization of “the imbeciles and handicapped”.


When the Nazis came to power in Germany they introduced eugenics laws. Between 1933- and 1939 three hundred and sixty thousand disabled Germans were sterilized. Between 75,000 and 250,000 people with intellectual and physical impairments were later systematically murdered through the Aktion T4 ‘racial hygiene’ programme. But active support for eugenics theory was not limited to fascists. More than 70,000 Americans were sterilized against their will during the same period and for the same reasons.

Though that was the apogee of the eugenics movement, discrimination against disabled people carried on in the post-war era. Discrimination on racial or gender grounds was outlawed in Britain in the early 1970s but the first law protecting people against discrimination on the grounds of disability was not passed until 1996. At present less than half of disabled people of working age are in employment compared to an employment rate of over 80% amongst non-disabled people. But if you have a learning impairment or mental health issues your chances of securing work are even more remote – worklessness for these impairment groups runs at
+ 80%.

Helen Keller

Not all disabled people have meekly accepted their oppression. Some have fought mightily against it. Helen Keller should not only be a heroine to disabled people but should also be better remembered in the socialist movement. If Helen Keller is remembered at all it is probably through the fictionalized version of her early life portrayed in the Oscar winning, “The Miracle Worker”(1962) The film shows how the seven year old feral deaf & blind girl Helen (portrayed by teenage actress Patty Duke) is connected to language by her teacher Annie Sullivan (Ann Bancroft) through a magical moment at the water pump.
The film ends shortly after the “miracle” has been wrought and Helen can begin to communicate with her family but Helen’s real life was only just beginning. Helen believed that she was only able to overcome the seemingly insurmountable difficulties she faced because of her privileged and affluent background. She wanted all children, both disabled and non-disabled, to also be able to realise their full potential and went on to become a tireless advocate of social change.

When she was 20, Helen went to college. She had decided that in order to better promote the social justice she had come to believe in, she would take lessons to improve her speaking voice so that she could speak out against injustice. After three years of difficult daily work, her voice was still uneven and difficult to control. Though