Helen Adams Keller (June 27, 1880 – June 1, 1968) was a deafblind American author, activist, and lecturer.
Helen Keller was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama. Her disabilities were caused by a fever in February 1882 when she was 19 months old. Her loss of ability to communicate at such an early developmental age was very traumatic for her and her family and as a result she became quite unmanageable.
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Keller was born at an estate called Ivy Green, on June 27, 1880. She was not born blind and deaf but was actually a typical, healthy infant. It was not until nineteen months later that she came down with an illness that the doctors described as an acute congestion of the stomach and the brain. Keller did not have the illness for a long time, but the illness left her blind, deaf, and unable to speak. By age seven she had invented over sixty different signs that she could use to communicate with her family.
In 1887, her parents, Captain Arthur H. Keller and Kate Adams Keller, finally contacted Alexander Graham Bell, who worked with deaf children. He advised them to contact the Perkins Institute for the Blind, then in South Boston, Massachusetts. They delegated the teacher Anne Sullivan, who was then only 20 years old, to try to open up Helen’s mind. It was the beginning of a 49-year period of working together.
Sullivan demanded and got permission from Helen’s father to isolate the girl from the rest of the family in a little house in their garden. Her first task was to instill discipline in the spoiled girl. Helen’s big breakthrough in communication came one day when she realized that the motions her teacher was making on her palm symbolized the idea of “water” and nearly exhausted Sullivan demanding the names of all the other familiar objects in her world (including her prized doll).
Anne was able to teach Helen to think intelligibly and to speak, using the Tadoma method: touching the lips of others as they spoke, feeling the vibrations, and spelling of alphabetical characters in the palm of Helen’s hand. She also learned to read English, French, German, Greek, and Latin in braille.
In 1888, Helen attended Perkins Institute for the Blind. In 1894, Helen and Anne moved to New York City to attend the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf. In 1898 they returned to Massachusetts and Helen entered the Cambridge School for Young Ladies before gaining admittance, in 1900, to Radcliffe College. In 1904 at the age of 24, Helen graduated from Radcliffe cum laude, becoming the first deaf and blind person to graduate from a college.
With tremendous willpower, Helen went on to become a world-famous speaker and author. She made it her own life’s mission to fight for the sensorially handicapped in the world. In 1915 she founded Helen Keller International, a non-profit organization for preventing blindness. Helen and Anne Sullivan traveled all over the world to over 39 countries, and made several trips to Japan, becoming a favorite of the Japanese people. Helen Keller met every U.S. President from Grover Cleveland to John F. Kennedy and was friends with many famous figures including Alexander Graham Bell, Charlie Chaplin and Mark Twain.
Helen Keller was a member of the socialist party and actively campaigned and wrote in support of the working classes from 1909 to 1921. She supported Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs in each of his campaigns for the presidency. Her political views were reinforced by visiting workers. In her words, “I have visited sweatshops, factories, crowded slums. If I could not see it, I could smell it.”
Newspaper columnists who had praised her courage and intelligence before she came out as a socialist now called attention to her disabilities. The editor of the Brooklyn Eagle wrote that her “mistakes sprung out of the manifest limitations of her development.” Keller responded to that editor, referring to having met him before he knew of her political views:
“At that time the compliments he paid me were so generous that I blush to remember them. But now that I have come out for socialism he reminds me and the public that I am blind and deaf and especially liable to error. I must have shrunk in intelligence during the years since I met him…Oh, ridiculous Brooklyn Eagle! Socially blind and deaf, it defends an intolerable system, a system that is the cause of much of the physical blindness and deafness which we are trying to prevent.”
Helen Keller also joined the industrial union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), in 1912 after she felt that parliamentary socialism was “sinking in the political bog.” Helen Keller wrote for the IWW between 1916 and 1918. In “Why I Became an IWW” Helen wrote that her motivation for activism came in part due to her concern about blindness and other disabilities:
“I was appointed on a commission to investigate the conditions of the blind. For the first time I, who had thought blindness a misfortune beyond human control, found that too much of it was traceable to wrong industrial conditions, often caused by the selfishness and greed of employers. And the social evil contributed its share. I found that poverty drove women to a life of shame that ended in blindness.”
Helen Keller wrote glowingly of the emergence of communism during the Russian Revolution (See ISBN 0684818868). Her contacts with suspected communists were frequently investigated by the FBI.
In 1920 she was one of the founders of the American Civil Liberties Union. In the 1920s, she sent a hundred dollars to the NAACP with a letter of support that appeared in its magazine The Crisis.
In 1925 she addressed a convention of Lions Clubs International giving that organisation a major focus for its service work which still continues today.
In 1960 her book Light in my Darkness was published in which she advocated the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg. She also wrote a lengthy autobiography. She wrote a total of eleven books, and authored numerous articles.
On September 14, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor.
Alabama honors her, a native daughter, on its state quarter.
Keller also devoted much of her later life to raising funds for the American Foundation for the Blind.
Helen Keller died on June 1, 1968 at the age of 87, more than thirty years after the death of Anne Sullivan. She was cremated and her remains were placed in the Chapel of St. Joseph of Arimathea in Washington National Cathedral.
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