I remember watching Patty Duke’s powerful and award winning portrayal of Helen Keller in the movie The Miracle Worker. I admired Anne Sullivan as she worked tirelessly to help Helen learn how to communicate. At first there were constant battles as wills clashed but bit by bit, the walls came down and soon Helen and Anne developed a close relationship. Helen was no longer throwing tantrums but was learning to communicate her feelings, wants, needs, etc in a clear and effective way.
Helen Keller was not born blind and deaf; it was not until she was 19 months old that she contracted an illness described by doctors as “an acute congestion of the stomach and the brain”, which might have been scarlet fever or meningitis. The illness did not last for a particularly long time, but it left her deaf and blind. At that time, she was able to communicate somewhat with Martha Washington, the six-year-old daughter of the family cook, who understood her signs; by the age of seven, she had over 60 home signs to communicate with her family.
In 1886, her mother, inspired by an account in Charles Dickens’ American Notes of the successful education of another deaf and blind child, Laura Bridgman, dispatched young Helen, accompanied by her father, to seek out Dr. J. Julian Chisolm, an eye, ear, nose, and throat specialist in Baltimore, for advice. He subsequently put them in touch with Alexander Graham Bell, who was working with deaf children at the time. Bell advised the couple to contact the Perkins Institute for the Blind, the school where Bridgman had been educated, which was then located in South Boston. Michael Anaganos, the school’s director, asked former student Anne Sullivan, herself visually impaired and only 20 years old, to become Keller’s instructor. It was the beginning of a 49-year-long relationship, Sullivan evolving into governess and then eventual companion.
I was familiar with Helen Keller the child but never knew what became of her. Yesterday, I learned that she went on to become a world-famous speaker and author. She is remembered as an advocate for people with disabilities, amid numerous other causes. She was a suffragist, a pacifist, an opponent of Woodrow Wilson, a radical socialist and a birth control supporter. In 1915 she and George Kessler founded the Helen Keller International (HKI) organization. This organization is devoted to research in vision, health and nutrition. In 1920 she helped to found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Helen joined the Socialist Party along with her friend, Mark Twain. Newspaper columnists who once praised her for her intelligence later blamed her disabilities for her socialist views. In response to remarks of The editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, Helen said, “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.” She was referring to the time that they met before he knew of her political views.
Helen also joined the Industrial Workers of the World whom she wrote for between 1916 and 1918. Her motivation for activism came in part from 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 wrote 12 published books and several articles. She wrote her autobiography, The Story of My Life with the help of her mentor Anne Sullivan and Sullivan’s husband and published it when she (Helen) was 22.
When Helen was young, Anne Sullivan shared the Gospel of Jesus Christ with her and Helen is quoted as saying, “I always knew He was there, but I didn’t know His name!“She even wrote a spiritual autobiography about her religion.
On September 14, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the United States’ highest two civilian honors. In 1965 she was elected to the National Women’s Hall of Fame at the New York World’s Fair.
Keller devoted much of her later life to raising funds for the American Foundation for the Blind. She died in her sleep on June 1, 1968, at her home, Arcan Ridge, located in Easton, Connecticut. A service was held in her honor at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and her ashes were placed there next to her constant companions, Anne Sullivan and Polly Thompson (Wikipedia).
Helen Keller is an inspiration to all of us. She was the epitome of strength and courage. She proved that a person with disabilities can have a normal life and be politically active and wasn’t afraid to stand up for what she believed in–no matter how unpopular. She was an overcomer. She had vision!
I can see, and that is why I can be happy, in what you call the dark, but which to me is golden. I can see a God-made world, not a manmade world.
I seldom think about my limitations, and they never make me sad. Perhaps there is just a touch of yearning at times; but it is vague, like a breeze among flowers. The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, they must be felt with the heart.
The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.