Helen Adams Keller
Born: June 27, 1880
Died: June 1, 1968
American activist for the physically disabled
Though both blind and deaf, American lecturer and author Helen Keller (1880–1968) traveled the world over, fighting for improvement in the education and life of the physically handicapped.
Helen becomes deaf and blind
Helen Adams Keller was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama, on June 27, 1880. Her parents were Captain Arthur H. Keller and Katherine Adams Keller. Her father was a veteran of the confederate army (army that fought to separate from the United States during the Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1865). He also was the editor of the local newspaper, the North Alabamian. Helen was born a normal child. She started speaking when she was six months old. By the time she was a year old, she was able to communicate with her parents and she had also learned to walk. When Helen was eighteen months old an illness developed that the doctor described as brain congestion. She ran a high fever for many days, and then the fever was gone. Helen was left deaf and blind from the illness. Helen became a very wild, unruly child. She would scream and kick when she was angry and giggle and laugh when happy. She developed many of her own signals to communicate her needs with her parents.
Her early learning
When Helen was six, her mother contacted Dr. Alexander Graham Bell (1847–1922), whom she had heard was working on devices to help the deaf. Bell met with Helen and her parents and suggested that they contact the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, Massachusetts. In March 1887 Anne Sullivan (1866–1936), a teacher at the institute, came to serve as Helen's teacher. Anne was twenty-one years old and had sight limitations of her own. One month after her arrival, Sullivan had taught Keller the word "water." She did this by using her fingers to spell letters into Helen's hand. From this she understood that objects had names, and that her teacher spelled these names into her hand. This unlocked a whole new world of learning for Helen.
Anne Sullivan was with Helen day and night, constantly spelling into her hand the words and ideas of things going on around them. Helen was a quick learner. In only three years she learned the manual alphabet (sign language), the Braille alphabet (an alphabet created by Louis Braille [1809–1852] for the blind that relies on raised dots to communicate), and she could read and write.
Schools and education
Helen wanted to learn to speak, and in 1890 she began taking speech classes at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf in Boston. She worked diligently at learning to speak. After twenty-five years of hard work and practice, Helen was able to speak in a voice that others could understand.
From 1894 to 1896 Helen attended the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf. Here she continued to work on improving her communication, as well as her math, French, German, and geography. In this way Helen prepared herself for college and went on to Cambridge School for Young Ladies. Anne Sullivan attended every class with Helen and interpreted the lectures and books for her, as they were not in Braille. By the time she was sixteen, Keller had passed the admissions examinations for Radcliffe College; in 1904 she graduated cum laude (with honors). This was all done with the assistance of Anne Sullivan interpreting the lectures and texts.
Devotes life to helping others
As a young woman Keller became determined to learn about the world and to improve the lives of others. With insight, energy, and deep devotion to humanity, she lectured throughout the world, worked to forward her ideas in Congress, and wrote thousands of letters asking for contributions to finance efforts to improve the welfare of the blind. She visited hospitals and helped blind soldiers. She taught the blind to be courageous and to make their lives rich, productive, and beautiful for others and for themselves.
Keller associated with some of the greatest people of her time, including Alexander Graham Bell, Mark Twain (1835–1910), Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919), John D. Rockefeller Sr. (1839–1937), and Presidents Grover Cleveland (1838–1908), Calvin Coolidge (1872–1933), and Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924). She authored such books as Helen Keller's Journal, Out of the Dark, Midstream: My Later Life, My Religion, The Song of the Stone Wall, The World I Live In, and The Story of My Life.
Sullivan served as Keller's counselor and companion. When Keller died in 1968 her name had become a worldwide symbol of what the human spirit can accomplish despite severe physical limitations.
For More Information
Ford, Carin T. Helen Keller: Lighting the Way for the Blind and Deaf. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow, 2001.
Herrmann, Dorothy. Helen Keller: A Life. New York: A. Knopf, 1998.
Keller, Helen. Light in My Darkness. 2nd ed. West Chester, PA: Chrysalis Books, 2000.
Keller, Helen. The Story of My Life. New York: Doubleday, Page, & Co., 1903, revised edition 1991.
Helen Keller was born on June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbia, Alabama . At nineteen months, she contracted a high fever and lost consciousness. When she awoke, she was both deaf and blind. No one understood at the time that her loss of sight and hearing was permanent.
Although she learned to perform simple household tasks such as folding laundry, Keller knew she was different from other children, and she often reacted to her situation with frustrated rage. Her parents realized their daughter needed professional help if she was to live in the real world. At the age of six, she accompanied her father to Washington, D.C. , where Alexander Graham Bell (1847–1922), the inventor of the telephone , examined her. Bell had developed a system of visible speech (sign language) to help the deaf communicate. He urged Keller's father to write to the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston, Massachusetts , to request a teacher.
Enter Anne Sullivan
The teacher assigned to Keller was Anne Sullivan (1866–1936), and she would remain Keller's teacher and mentor for many years and her friend for life. Sullivan worked with Keller in the privacy of a small guest house in the Keller family's backyard. It was important for Keller to be separated from her parents, who tended to indulge her and give in to her wishes in order to keep the peace.
Sullivan taught Keller sign language by signing words and names for things into the palm of Keller's hand. One day, the pair walked toward a well, where someone was drawing water. Sullivan spelled the word “water” into Keller's hand as she placed her other hand under the spout to feel the running water. It was at that moment that Keller realized everything had a name that could be spelled.
With that realization, the world opened up for Keller, and she became immediately curious about everything around her. Sullivan patiently continued to teach her, and soon Keller learned to express herself. After that came the ability to read Braille, a system of writing for the blind that uses characters made up of combinations of raised dots. At age ten, Keller attended the Horace Mann School for the Deaf, where she progressed rapidly and even learned to speak French and German.
Becomes a reformer
Keller continued her studies at the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf and the Cambridge School for Young Ladies in Massachusetts, where she studied history, mathematics, astronomy, physics, and literature. In 1904, she graduated with honors from Radcliffe College.
Keller overcame her physical limitations and came to understand that the next step was to battle the public's indifference to the welfare of the disabled. She spent the rest of her life promoting social reforms aimed at improving the education and treatment of the blind, deaf, and mute. Credited with prompting the organization of state commissions for the blind, Keller was key in the effort to end the practice of placing deaf and blind people in mental asylums, which was common in the early 1900s.
Keller did not stop there. She made it her mission to educate the public in the prevention of blindness in newborns by writing newspaper and magazine articles discussing the relationship between sexually transmitted disease and blindness in newborns. She traveled across the globe, lecturing about the need to improve the quality of life of disabled individuals. Her work won many awards and citations.
In 1903, Keller wrote and published the first volume of her autobiography and called it The Story of My Life. The second volume, Midstream: My Later Life, was published in 1929.
Although Keller is the one who received most of the attention and accolades, Sullivan made it possible for Keller to achieve all that she did. Sullivan married John Macy, the editor of Keller's autobiography, but she did not let that interrupt her friendship. Instead, Sullivan continued to help her former student by manually spelling lectures and reading assignments into Keller's hand throughout school and college. When Keller toured on lecture, Sullivan accompanied her and gave her full support.
This mutually beneficial partnership ended with Sullivan's death in 1936. In 1957, a television play titled The Miracle Worker aired to high praise. It brought to the world the story of Sullivan and Keller at the well, where Keller first understood what language and communication were all about. Two years later, the play went to Broadway and was an immediate hit. The production ran for nearly two years. It was made into a movie in 1962 and earned Academy Awards (Oscars) for both actresses who played Keller and Sullivan.
Keller suffered a series of strokes in 1961 and took that as a sign that it was time to retire from public life. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor a civilian can receive, in 1964. She died four years later at the age of eighty-seven.
Helen Adams Keller
Helen Adams Keller
Though both blind and deaf, Helen Adams Keller (1880-1962), American lecturer and author, traveled the world over, crusading for improvement in the education and life of the physically handicapped.
Helen Keller was born in Tuscumbia, Ala., on June 27, 1880. Though she was born a normal child, at the age of 18 months an illness developed that left her blind and deaf. Yet, there were signs that she possessed high intelligence. When Helen was 6, her mother heard of the pioneer work being done at the Perkins Institution in Massachusetts for teaching deaf and blind people to communicate. In March 1887, Anne Sullivan, a product of the institution, came to serve as Keller's teacher. One month after her arrival, Sullivan had taught Keller the word "water." This sudden learning that things had names unlocked a whole, new universe for the child.
By the time she was 16, Keller had passed the admissions examinations for Radcliffe College; in 1904 she graduated cum laude. As a young woman, she became determined to learn about the world, and to improve the lives of others. With insight, energy, and deep devotion to humanity, she lectured throughout the world, lobbied in Congress, and wrote thousands of letters asking for contributions to finance efforts to improve the welfare of the blind. She visited hospitals and helped blind soldiers. She taught the blind to be courageous and to make their lives rich, productive, and beautiful for others and for themselves.
Keller associated with some of the greatest people of her times, including Alexander Graham Bell, Mark Twain, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Sr., and presidents Grover Cleveland, Calvin Coolidge, and Woodrow Wilson. She authored such books as Helen Keller's Journal, Optimism (an essay), Out of the Dark, Midstream: My Later Life, My Religion, The Song of the Stone Wall, The World I Live In, and The Story of My Life.
Sullivan served as Keller's counselor and companion. When Keller died in 1962, her name was a worldwide symbol of what the human spirit could accomplish despite severe physical limitations.
One of the best books on Helen Keller's life is her autobiography, The Story of My Life (1903); John Albert Macy, husband of Anne Sullivan, prepared a supplement for this which includes information on Helen Keller's education as well as passages from her teacher's reports and letters. Important sources are Van Wyck Brooks, Helen Keller: Sketch for a Portrait (1956), containing new and detailed information, and Richard Harrity and Ralph G. Martin, The Three Lives of Helen Keller (1962). □