Helen Keller Biography

Helen Keller (1880-1968) was an American author, political activist and campaigner for deaf and blind charities. Helen became deaf and blind as a young child and had to struggle to overcome her dual disability. However, she became the first deaf-blind person to attain a bachelors degree and became an influential campaigner for social, political and disability issues. Her public profile helped de-stigmatise blindness and deafness, and she was seen as a powerful example of someone overcoming difficult circumstances.

“Once I knew the depth where no hope was, and darkness lay on the face of all things. Then love came and set my soul free. Once I knew only darkness and stillness. Now I know hope and joy.”

– Helen Keller, On Optimism (1903)

Short Biography of Helen Keller

helen-kellerHelen Keller was born 27 June 1880 in Tusculum, Alabama. When she was only 19 months old, she experienced a severe childhood illness, which left her deaf and blind (only a very partial sight). For the first few years of her life, she was only able to communicate with her family through a rudimentary number of signs; she had a little more success communicating with the six year old daughter of the family cook. However, unable to communicate properly, she was considered to be badly behaved, for example, eating from the plates of anyone on the table with her fingers.

In 1886, Helen was sent to see an eye, ear and nose specialist in Baltimore. He put them in touch with Alexander Graham Bell, who was currently investigate issues of deafness and sound (he would also develop the first telephone) Bell, helped Keller to visit the Perkins Institute for the Blind, and this led to a long relationship with Anne Sullivan – who was a former student herself. Sullivan was visually impaired, but aged only 20 and with no prior experience, she set about teaching Helen how to communicate. The two maintained a long relationship of 49 years.

Learning to Communicate

In the beginning, Keller was frustrated by her inability to pick up the hand signals that Sullivan were giving. However, after a frustrating month, Keller picked up on Sullivan’s system of hand signals through understanding the word water. Sullivan poured water over Keller’s left hand and wrote out on her right hand the word ‘water’. This helped Helen to fully understand the system, and she was soon able to identify a variety of household objects.

“The most important day I remember in all my life is the one on which my teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, came to me. I am filled with wonder when I consider the immeasurable contrasts between the two lives which it connects. It was the third of March, 1887, three months before I was seven years old.”

– Helen Keller, The Story of My Life, 1903, Ch. 4

helen-kellerKeller made rapid progress and quickly overcame her bad habits. She became proficient in Braille, and was able to begin a fruitful education, despite her disability. Keller made more progress than anyone expected. She would later learn to write with a Braille typewriter.

Keller came into contact with American author, Mark Twain. Twain admired the perseverance of Keller and helped persuade Henry Rogers, an oil businessman to fund her education. With great difficulty, Keller was able to study at Radcliffe College, where in 1904, she was able to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree. During her education, she also learned to speak and practise lip-reading. Her sense of touch became extremely subtle.

Keller became a proficient writer and speaker. In 1903, she published an autobiography ‘The Story of My Life‘ It recounted her struggles to overcome her disabilities.

Political Views

Keller also wrote on political issues, Keller was a strong supporter of the American Socialist party and joined the party in 1909. She wished to see a fairer distribution of income, and an end to the inequality of Capitalist society. She said she became a more convinced socialist after the 1912 miners strike. Her book ‘Out of the Dark‘ (1913) includes several essays on socialism. She supported Eugene V Debs, in each of the Presidential election he stood for. In 1912, she joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW); as well as advocating socialism, Keller was a pacifist and opposed the American involvement in World War One.

Religious Views

In religious matters, she advocated the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, a Christian theologian who advocated a particular spiritual interpretation of the Bible. She published ‘My Religion‘ in 1927.

Charity Work

From 1918, she devoted much of her time to raise funds and awareness for blind charities. She sought to raise money and also improve the living conditions of the blind, who at the time were often badly educated and living in asylums. Her public profile helped to de-stigmatise blindness and deafness.

Towards the end of her life, she suffered a stroke and she died in her sleep on June 1, 1968. She was given numerous awards during her life, including the Presidential medal of Freedom in 1964, by Lyndon B. Johnson.

Citation : Pettinger, Tejvan. "Biography of Helen Keller", Oxford, www.biographyonline.net, Last updated: 1st Feb. 2014

Related

Quotes Helen Keller

“I had now the key to all language, and I was eager to learn to use it. Children who hear acquire language without any particular effort; the words that fall from others’ lips they catch on the wing, as it were, delightedly, while the little deaf child must trap them by a slow and often painful process. But whatever the process, the result is wonderful. Gradually from naming an object we advance step by step until we have traversed the vast distance between our first stammered syllable and the sweep of thought in a line of Shakespeare.

The Story of My Life (1903)

If I am happy in spite of my deprivations, if my happiness is so deep that it is a faith, so thoughtful that it becomes a philosophy of life, — if, in short, I am an optimist, my testimony to the creed of optimism is worth hearing.

– Optimism (1903)

Once I knew the depth where no hope was, and darkness lay on the face of all things. Then love came and set my soul free. Once I knew only darkness and stillness. Now I know hope and joy. Once I fretted and beat myself against the wall that shut me in. Now I rejoice in the consciousness that I can think, act and attain heaven. My life was without past or future; death, the pessimist would say, “a consummation devoutly to be wished.” But a little word from the fingers of another fell into my hand that clutched at emptiness, and my heart leaped to the rapture of living. Night fled before the day of thought, and love and joy and hope came up in a passion of obedience to knowledge. Can anyone who escaped such captivity, who has felt the thrill and glory of freedom, be a pessimist?

– Optimism (1903)

Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it. My optimism, then, does not rest on the absence of evil, but on a glad belief in the preponderance of good and a willing effort always to cooperate with the good, that it may prevail. I try to increase the power God has given me to see the best in everything and every one, and make that Best a part of my life.

– Optimism (1903)

The idea of brotherhood redawns upon the world with a broader significance than the narrow association of members in a sect or creed; and thinkers of great soul like Lessing challenge the world to say which is more godlike, the hatred and tooth-and-nail grapple of conflicting religions, or sweet accord and mutual helpfulness. Ancient prejudice of man against his brother-man wavers and retreats before the radiance of a more generous sentiment, which will not sacrifice men to forms, or rob them of the comfort and strength they find in their own beliefs. The heresy of one age becomes the orthodoxy of the next. Mere tolerance has given place to a sentiment of brotherhood between sincere men of all denominations.

– Optimism (1903)

The bulk of the world’s knowledge is an imaginary construction.

The Five-sensed World (1910)

We differ, blind and seeing, one from another, not in our senses, but in the use we make of them, in the imagination and courage with which we seek wisdom beyond the senses.

The Five-sensed World (1910)

The problems of deafness are deeper and more complex, if not more important, than those of blindness. Deafness is a much worse misfortune. For it means the loss of the most vital stimulus — the sound of the voice that brings language, sets thoughts astir and keeps us in the intellectual company of man.

– The Five-sensed World (1910)

When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.

We Bereaved (1929)

A happy life consists not in the absence, but in the mastery of hardships.

The Simplest Way to be Happy (1933)

It all comes to this: the simplest way to be happy is to do good.

The Simplest Way to be Happy (1933)

Quotes on Politics

Our democracy is but a name. We vote? What does that mean? It means that we choose between two bodies of real, though not avowed, autocrats. We choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.… You ask for votes for women. What good can votes do when ten-elevenths of the land of Great Britain belongs to 200,000 and only one-eleventh to the rest of the 40,000,000? Have your men with their millions of votes freed themselves from this injustice?

Letter published in the Manchester Advertiser (3 March 1911), quoted in A People’s History of the United States (1980) page 345.

Strike against war, for without you no battles can be fought. Strike against manufacturing shrapnel and gas bombs and all other tools of murder. Strike against preparedness that means death and misery to millions of human beings. Be not dumb, obedient slaves in an army of destruction. Be heroes in an army of construction.

“Strike Against War”, speech in Carnegie Hall (5 January 1916)

  • Helen Keller at RNIB