As an icon of deaf culture and one of the most famous deaf people who has ever lived, Helen Keller remains a beloved figure within both the deaf community and the hearing community. This remarkable woman overcame obstacles that few people face and was responsible for achievements that few have ever reached. Her story is truly inspiring, and it demonstrates that deafness need not hinder one’s ability to lead a long and fulfilling life.
Helen Keller was born in the small town of Tuscumbia, Alabama, on June 27, 1880. Although Keller was not born deaf, an illness that she suffered in 1882 would take her sight, hearing, and speech. This did not mean that her communicative abilities were completely gone, for she and the daughter of her family’s cook developed a rudimentary form of sign language that allowed them to communicate with one another. Yet by age 7, Helen was displaying signs of unruliness that, in the days prior to extensive deaf education, prompted many friends and families to call for her institutionalization.
Not wanting to put their daughter in an institution, Helen’s parents began looking for help in dealing with their daughter and her deafness, blindness, and silence. She and her father traveled to the East Coast, and through the recommendations of Alexander Graham Bell, eventually met Anne Sullivan. Sullivan was known for her expertise in deaf education, and she returned with Helen and her father to Alabama in order to help teach the young girl.
Helen and Anne
Initially, Anne Sullivan’s attempts to educate Helen did not go well. Helen would get very frustrated as Anne tried to teach her to spell out letters with her fingers on her hand, and the deaf girl would throw tantrums. Anne decided to isolate herself and Helen in a small cottage on the Keller property so that she could apply her expertise in educating deaf people to Helen in a more concentrated fashion. Eventually, a breakthrough was reached, and Anne was able to teach her how to spell out and understand dozens of words.
When Helen was 10 years old, she enrolled in classes at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf in Boston. There, in the context of a deaf community, she would begin to learn how to speak. A few years later, she transferred to the Cambridge School for Young Ladies, which accepted her even though the school was not a part of the deaf culture. More and more people began to hear of Helen’s remarkable progress, and Anne Sullivan continued to help her in her studies, even assisting Helen in writing a book about her life and deafness that was titled The Story of My Life.
Keller the Advocate
Helen Keller would successfully complete college and go on to become an advocate for deaf people, blind people, and others that the society of her day all but ignored. Yet Keller was not only passionate about helping out the deaf community. She was also concerned for civil liberties and helped to found the ACLU in 1920.
Keller would continue her work advancing deaf culture and calling for federal and state assistance for both the blind and the deaf. She became a counsel on international relations for the American Foundation of Overseas Blind in 1946 and served in that capacity for over ten years. The need for deaf education was really brought to the public’s attention in 1957 when The Miracle Worker, a television movie based on her autobiographical The Story of My Life, was released.
The Conclusion of a Remarkable Life
Helen Keller died on June 1, 1968, but not before receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom and many honorary doctoral degrees. Her humanitarian work continues on in the institutions that she helped to found and lead in her lifetime.