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 bachelor’s 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 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 was moved by the experience of working with Keller, writing that:
“I feel that in this child I have seen more of the Divine than has been manifest in anyone I ever met before.”
Alexander 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 and, 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 was 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
Keller 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. She also found that deafness and blindness encouraged her to develop wisdom and understanding from beyond the senses.
“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.”
― Helen Keller, The Five-sensed World (1910)
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 and the way it forced her to look at life from a different perspective.
“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.”
― Helen Keller
Keller also wrote on political issues, Keller was a staunch 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 elections 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.
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.
From 1918, she devoted much of her time to raising 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. She was also noted for her optimism which she sought to cultivate.
“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.”
― Helen Keller, Optimism (1903)
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.
Hellen Keller – The Story of My Life
Hellen Keller – The Story of My Life at Amazon
Women who changed the world – Famous women who changed the world. Features female Prime Ministers, scientists, cultural figures, authors and royalty. Includes; Cleopatra, Princess Diana, Marie Curie, Queen Victoria, and Joan of Arc.
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