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Helen Keller—Child of Adversity, Woman of the World

Posted on 03/21/2011

From the Missouri Republican, Apr. 1, 1888. Click to open.

Helen Keller was born on June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbia, Alabama. When she was 19 months old, an illness left her both deaf and blind. A brilliant child, Keller was able to adjust to her condition and function reasonably well. As she grew older, however, she noticed that people around her could communicate through speech. Frustrated at her own inability to speak, Keller often flew into wild rages. Unsure of what to do, Keller’s parents searched for a specialist to help their daughter. Their search led them to the Perkins Institute for the Blind and to Annie Sullivan. Sullivan, a teacher who had faced childhood blindness herself, rose to the task of teaching Helen Keller to communicate. Sullivan began teaching Keller by signing letters into her hand. Keller quickly learned to repeat these signs, but did not connect the words with the objects they represented. Then, on March 3, 1887, Sullivan took Keller to a water pump. As she pumped water onto one of Keller’s hands, she repeatedly spelled out the word “water” in the other. Keller made the connection, and from then on was eager to learn the names of the objects around her. 

From the Montgomery Advertiser, June 26, 1904. Click to open.

Once she was able to connect words to objects and ideas, Helen Keller became a diligent student, eager to learn as much as she could. Keller learned to read and write Braille. She also learned to speak. Although unable to hear sound, she could place her hand on a speaker’s mouth and vocal chords to feel the vibrations the words made. Keller attended Radcliffe College, graduating with honors in 1904.

From the Albuquerque Morning Journal, Apr. 20, 1913. Click to open.

Keller was an outspoken advocate for blind and deaf education. Studying the causes of blindness, Keller discovered that it was often a result of poor working conditions, disease, and poverty. Outraged at the inequality around her, Keller became a socialist. Keller supported unions and opposed sweatshop conditions. She was a proponent of women’s suffrage and birth control. She became a pacifist and opposed America’s entry into the First World War. Keller applauded Lenin and the Russian Revolution of 1917. Helen Keller was a founding member of the ACLU, a supporter of the NAACP, and later a member of the radical union the International Workers of the World.

Throughout her lifetime, Helen Keller was a celebrity. Her struggle to overcome her disabilities made her a hero to millions. Newspapers covered her life in great detail, although they often overlooked her social activism. Keller was a prolific author, writing 12 books on various subjects. She passed away on June 1, 1968, at the age of 87.

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