By: Carmen Willings
Although there are a number of famous people who were blind, Helen Keller is by far one of the more well known. Most people are familiar with her story from early childhood and the illness that left her both deaf and blind, but less are familiar with her later life that included contributions to the field of blindness that continue to impact people with visual impairments today. Her story is one of overcoming overwhelming odds and becoming an inspiring person for many.
Helen Adams Keller was born on June 27, 1880 in Tuscumbia, Alabama. Helen was born with the ability to see and hear, but when she was 19 months old, she contracted an illness that is speculated to have been scarlet fever or meningitis. It was simply referred to as "an acute congestion of the stomach and the brain". Mrs. Keller had heard of the successful education of another woman who was deaf and blind named Laura Bridgman. The Keller's sought advice from Dr. J. Julian Chisolm in Baltimore who referred them to Alexander Graham Bell, who was working with children who were deaf. Bell in turn referred them to the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston. The school's director, Michael Anagnos, asked a former student, Anne Sullivan, to become Helen's teacher.
Anne Sullivan began working with Helen at the Keller's house in March 1887. She began to teach Helen to communicate by spelling words into her hand. Much has been written about Helen's early childhood and her tantrums and "wildness". As Anne Sullivan was able to help Helen begin to learn and understand more about her world, Helen became more cooperative. The Miracle Worker is a famous dramatic work derived from her autobiography, The Story of My Life.
In May 1988, Keller attended the Perkins Institute for the Blind. She left in 1891 after being accused of plagiarism. She had written a story called "The Frost King" and given it as a gift to the Perkins director, Michael Anagnos. It was published, but then brought to Perkins attention that it was very similar to another story that had been published. She went on to attend the Wright-Humanson School for the Deaf and the Horace Mann School for the Deaf in New York. She returned to Massachusetts to attend The Cambridge School for Young Ladies and then attended Radcliffe College where she graduated from in 1904. She became the first person who was both deaf and blind to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. Helen learned to speak and spent much of her life giving speeches and lectures. She would "read" people's lips with her hands in order to "hear" what they were saying. She was also able to communicate through braille and by reading sign language in her hands.
Following graduation, Keller went on to become a world-famous speaker and author. Although I do not share all of her religious and political views (e.g. she was a radical socialist and member of the Socialist Party and followed the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, a mystic and "Christian" theologian born in 1688 who believed the second coming of Jesus Christ has already taken place), I do feel she did an amazing work in respect to being an advocate for people who are blind by raising awareness of blindness and the need for preventative measures. She was instrumental in changing the public perception of people with visual impairments. She pushed for changes in the law to ensure all people were treated with dignity and respect.
She devoted much of her time to raising funds for the American Foundation for the Blind. She also founded the Helen Keller International organization in 1915. The organization is devoted to research in vision, health and nutrition. She also helped to found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). She was devoted to humanitarian efforts that included the rights of women and the rights of people with disabilities. Keller met every U.S. president from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon Johnson. Her contributions have made a significant impact on the field of visual impairments and subsequently helped many worldwide who are blind or visually impaired.
Helen Keller died in her sleep on June 1, 1968, at her home in Easton, Connecticut.