Writer, Lecturer and Advocate for the Handicapped
Helen Keller was an American writer whose accomplishments were all the more remarkable because she was deaf and blind. Born on June 27, 1880 in Tuscumbia, Alabama to Kate Adams Keller and Arthur H. Keller, Helen was a healthy baby with no handicaps. At the age of nineteen months, Helen became ill and suffered from an extremely high fever. While the exact illness is not known, some feel that the illness was scarlet fever. Suddenly, because of the effects of the illness, Helen was shut off from the world by the loss of sight, speech, and hearing. Most people of the day believed that the disease that afflicted Helen left its victim and idiot. Because of her inability to communicate with those around her effectively, she became a wild and destructive child, confirming to most that this was indeed true. Yet she also showed such signs of intelligence, contriving over sixty signs to indicate what she wanted, that her mother was determined that she could learn to communicate with others.
In an act of courage and determination, the Keller’s tried to improve Helen’s situation. They contacted Alexander Graham Bell, who, besides being a great inventor, was an authority on deafness. Bell advised the family to write to the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston for help with Helen. The founder of Perkins, Samuel Gridley Howe, had been able to teach Laura Bridgman, another girl who was deaf and blind, to read and write. The current director of Perkins, Michael Anagnos, decided to send one of his former student so try to help the stricken Helen. This student was Annie Sullivan. Anne had been formerly blind herself, but her vision had been restored through a series of operations. While a student at Perkins, Anne had learned a manual alphabet (an alphabet for the deaf in which letters are represented by finger positions) to talk with Laura Bridgman.
In March, 1887, when Helen was a few months short of her seventh birthday, Anne came to her home as her teacher. Helen was to forever call this day “The most important day of my life”. From that fateful day, the Anne and Helen were inseparable until Anne’s death in 1936.
Within two weeks after her arrival, Anne, with a mixture of love and discipline, was able to establish her authority over the undisciplined Helen. Miss Sullivan was then able to proceed in teaching Helen. She reached Helen’s mind through the sense of touch, using the manual alphabet to spell words into the girl’s hand. She began by spelling d-o-l-l into Helen’s hand, hoping to teach her to connect object with letters. While Helen quickly learned to make the letters correctly, she didn’t realize she was spelling a word or that words existed. Therefore, she learned to spell many words in an uncomprehending way.
But soon after they began, Helen discovered the correlation between words and objects. Anne used practical situations to show her this connection. The first time Helen made that connection was when “Teacher”, which is what Helen always called Anne, took her outside to the water pump. Anne started to draw water and put Helen’s hand under the spout. As the cool water flowed over one hand, she spelled the word “w-a-t-e-r” manually into the other hand. Suddenly the signals had meaning in Helen’s mind. It was here that Helen learned that everything had a name and that the manual alphabet was the key to everything she wanted to know. On fire with this realization, Helen learned 300 words in a few months time. By mid-July she wrote her first letter to her mother and by the end of 1887 she began to be viewed by the public as one of the most remarkable children in the world.
In May of 1888, Anne brought Helen to the Perkins Institution in Boston to further her education. When she was just ten years old, Helen had somehow found out that a deaf-blind girl in Norway had learned to speak. Helen was eager to speak herself and when she expressed this desire a speech teacher was found. Miss Sarah Fuller of the Horace Mann school was her first speech teacher.
As she grew into a young woman, Helen decided that she would like to go to college someday. She attended preparatory schools in New York City and Cambridge where she developed the skill of lip-reading by placing her fingers over the speaker’s nose, mouth, and larynx. After working two years with a tutor, Miss Keller passed the entrance examinations and began at Radcliffe College in September 1900. She carried a full schedule. While Anne Sullivan attended every class with Helen as her interpreter, spelling the lectures into her hand, Helen sat for examinations alone.
Helen Keller’s formal schooling ended when she received her B.A. degree from Radcliffe College, but through her life she continued to study on her own and keep informed on current events. While a student at Radcliffe, Helen had taken up writing, producing articles in Ladies Home Journal. She went on to write many books, including her autobiography, “The Story of My Life” in 1902, which, as predicted became a classic. In addition, she was a frequent contributor to magazines and newspapers, writing on a variety of topics including, blindness, deafness, and social issues.
Religion played an important part in Helen’s life. Her faith in God gave her an optimistic world-view and the Bible was one of her favorite books to read. She also made a practice of living her faith. Though she was busy with her writing career, Keller pitched in to help improve the conditions of the blind and deaf-blind. >From her youth she was always willing to help the cause of the handicapped, appearing before legislative committees, giving lectures, writing articles, and above all, by her own example of what a extremely handicapped person could achieve. For her entire life she spent most of her time advocating for the needs and rights of the disabled. She lobbied for measures to aid the blind, including reading services and Social Security acceptance. Helen served on the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind and worked throughout her life to raise funds for the American Foundation for the Blind.
Anne Sullivan, the beloved teacher and life-long companion to Helen, died in 1936. This was a great loss to Helen and to help her through this time she began keeping a journal that would show the world that she had a personality of her own and that she was gifted in her own right. Her journals were eventually published in 1938 and put to rest the public’s question “What would Helen do without Teacher.” Polly Thomson, who had been on staff with Helen and Anne for some years as a secretary and housekeeper, now became Helen’s companion. In later years, when Miss Thomson suffered a stroke, it became apparent to close friends that they must train a substitute to be Helen’s companion. Winefred Corbally became Helen’s companion after Polly’s death in 1960 and continued on in this role for the rest of Helen’s life.
During her lifetime, Helen Keller lived in many different places. She lived in Tuscumbia, Alabama; Cambridge and Wrentham, Massachusetts; Forest Hills, New York, and Westport, Connecticut. She visited many different countries in her effort to help the handicapped. In fact, during seven trips between 1946 and 1957 she visited 35 countries on five continents. Wherever she traveled, she brought new courage to millions of blind people and her efforts not only raised awareness of the blind, but improved their conditions dramatically wherever she visited.
Helen Keller made her last major public appearance in 1961 at a meeting of the Washington, D.C. Lions Club. At that meeting she received the Lions Humanitarian Award for her lifetime of service to the handicapped. After 1961, Helen lived quietly at Arcan Ridge, her home in Wesport, Connecticut. She regularly saw family, close friends, and associates from her work with the blind and spent much time reading.
Even though she retired from public life, Helen was not forgotten. She continued to receive many honors and much recognition. She died on June 1, 1968 at Arcan Ridge, just prior to her 88th birthday. In the eulogy given by Senator Lister Hill of Alabama at her funeral, he expressed the feelings of the entire world when he said “She will live on, one of the few, the immortal names not born to die. Her spirit will endure as long as man can read and stories can be told of the woman who showed the world there are no boundaries to courage and faith.”