Helen Keller, a symbol of the ability of the human spirit to overcome tremendous obstacles with grace and poise, led a fascinating life despite being both deaf and blind. As a schoolgirl she already was a national celebrity and by adulthood was one of the most famous women of the 19th century. Presidents sought her company, foreign leaders paid her tribute and both Hollywood and Broadway helped make her a legendary figure.
Born on June 27, 1880, on a farm near Tuscumbia, Alabama, Helen was a healthy baby until 19 months of age, when she was stricken with what is believed to have been scarlet fever, then incurable. She became so weak it was feared she would die. Once the fever broke, she could no longer see or hear. Soon, she stopped speaking.
Helen learned to communicate with gestures: A nod meant yes, a pull meant come, a push meant go away. But she wanted to express much more and she often acted out her frustration in rage.
When Helen toppled her sister's crib at age 6 in an effort to communicate, her parents knew they had to find assistance. They considered an asylum until they learned about a school with teachers who had once taught a girl who also was blind and deaf.
One of those teachers, Annie Sullivan, became the most influential person in Helen's life. In their first sessions together, Annie tried to instill self-control, but Helen resisted. In a desperate move to make her behave, Annie decided to live with Helen in a little house near the Keller residence. At first Helen continued to contest Annie, but eventually she stopped fighting. Her behavior gradually improved, which gave Annie an opportunity to spell words into Helen's hands. Although Helen thought Annie was just playing a game, it drew her attention and sparked her curiosity.
Miraculously, on April 5, 1887, Helen understood. In an old pump house, Annie put Helen's hand under the stream and spelled the word water. Helen, awestruck, pulled her hand from the water. At last she realized that everything had a name.
During the following year, Helen's comprehension skyrocketed. Helen learned the alphabet and how to read with her hands by using cards that featured words with raised outlines. Although Helen now communicated with the outside world via her hands, they were not quick enough to keep up with the myriad of thoughts bursting in her mind.
In order to satisfy Helen's desire to learn to speak, Annie contacted another teacher, Sarah Fuller. Helen began speaking by approximating the vibrations she felt when she touched Sarah's throat.
Helen's remarkable achievements were made public in newspaper stories, radio programs - even by having a ship named after her. When she was 12 she was invited to the White House to meet President Harrison. Although Helen was a national heroine, she spent most of her time living a normal life. At home she rode her horse, walked her dogs and even learned to swim. Her desire to learn never ceased.
In 1900 Helen entered Radcliffe College after convincing the president that she could complete the course work. Even though Annie continued to spell for her, college proved to be a challenge. Since Helen could not refer to notes, she had to remember everything and provide correct answers on tests the first time. But Helen and Annie's perseverance paid off, and in 1904 Helen graduated with honors.
After college she wrote and lectured to further people's understanding of those who were blind or deaf. Annie accompanied Helen on her lectures until Annie became too sick to travel. She died on October 19, 1936. Helen continued to lecture with the aid of others, and when World War II broke out, she began visiting hospitals at the request of President Roosevelt to comfort soldiers who had been blinded or otherwise maimed.
Helen eventually retired to her home in Westport, Connecticut, where she devoted herself to reading, writing, visiting friends and enjoying life. On June 1, 1968, she died at the age of 87, leaving a brighter future for humanity.
For more information on Helen Keller, the following books are suggested:
- Davidson, Margaret. Helen Keller. New York: Scholastic Book Services, 1969. For children.
- Graff, Stewart, and Polly Ann. Helen Keller. New York: Yearling books, 1965.
- Keller, Helen. The Story of My Life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1954.
- Waite, Helen Elmira. Valiant Companions: Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy. Philadelphia: MacRae Smith, 1959.