Helen Adams Keller (1880 – 1968) was an American author, journalist, political activist, and educator.
American educator Helen Keller overcame the adversity of being blind and deaf to become one of the 20th century’s leading humanitarians, as well as the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree, graduating in 1904. Enthusiastic about reading and writing, Helen Keller ultimately wrote many articles and 12 books. During her lifetime, she received many honors in recognition of her accomplishments, including the Theodore Roosevelt Distinguished Service Medal in 1936, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964, and election to the Women’s Hall of Fame in 1965. She also received honorary doctoral degrees from Temple University and Harvard University and from the universities of Glasgow, Scotland; Berlin, Germany; Delhi, India; and Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. Additionally, she was named an Honorary Fellow of the Educational Institute of Scotland. Keller stood as a powerful example of how determination, hard work, and imagination can allow an individual to triumph over adversity. By overcoming difficult conditions with a great deal of persistence, she grew into a respected and world-renowned activist who labored for the betterment of others.
Helen Adams Keller was born on June 27, 1880 in Tuscumbia, Alabama. She was the first of two daughters born to Arthur H. Keller and Katherine Adams Keller. She also had two older stepbrothers. The family was not particularly wealthy and earned income from their cotton plantation.
Keller was born with her senses of sight and hearing, and started speaking when she was just 6 months old. She started walking at the age of 1. In 1882, however, Keller contracted an illness called “brain fever.” Some experts believe it might have been scarlet fever or meningitis. Within a few days after the fever broke, Keller had lost both her sight and hearing. She was just 18 months old.
As Keller grew into childhood, she developed a limited method of communication with her companion, Martha Washington, the young daughter of the family cook. But Keller had become very wild and unruly in childhood. She would kick and scream when angry, and giggle uncontrollably when happy. She tormented Martha and inflicted raging tantrums on her parents. Many family relatives felt she should be institutionalized.
Alexander Graham Bell spent the 1870s working on hearing devices for the deaf. Helen Keller’s parents reached out to him when Helen was a child, and he in turn connected them with the Perkins Institute. The school’s director, Michael Anaganos then sent Anne Sullivan in March 1887 to work with Helen. And so began a 49-year relationship between teacher and pupil.
She began by teaching Helen finger spelling, starting with the word “doll,” to help Keller understand the gift of a doll she had brought along. Other words would follow. At first, Keller was curious, then defiant, refusing to cooperate with Sullivan’s instruction. When Keller did cooperate, Sullivan could tell that she wasn’t making the connection between the objects and the letters spelled out in her hand. Sullivan kept working at it, forcing Helen to go through the regimen.
As Keller’s frustration grew, the tantrums increased. Finally, Sullivan demanded that she and Keller be isolated from the rest of the family for a time, so that Keller could concentrate only on Sullivan’s instruction. They moved to a cottage on the plantation.
In a dramatic struggle, Sullivan taught Keller the word “water”; she helped her make the connection between the object and the letters by taking Keller out to the water pump, and placing Keller’s hand under the spout. While Sullivan moved the lever to flush cool water over Keller’s hand, she spelled out the word w-a-t-e-r on Helen’s other hand. Keller understood and repeated the word in Sullivan’s hand. She then pounded the ground, demanding to know its “letter name.” Sullivan followed her, spelling out the word into her hand. Keller moved to other objects with Sullivan in tow. By nightfall, she had learned 30 words. This was a critical turning point.
1890 – Horace Mann School for the Deaf in Boston. Would toil for 25 years to learn to speak so that others could understand her.
1894—1896 – Wright-Humason School for the Deaf in New York City. Worked on improving her communication skills and studied regular academic subjects.
1896 – Cambridge School for Young Ladies, a preparatory school for women.
– Mark Twain introduced her to his friend Henry H. Rogers, who agreed to pay for her to attend Radcliff College. There, Sullivan sat by her side to interpret lectures and texts. She had mastered several methods of communication, including touch-lip reading, Braille, speech, typing and finger-spelling.
1901 – With the help of Sullivan and Sullivan’s future husband, John Macy, Keller wrote her first book, The Story of My Life.
1904 – Graduated, cum laude, from Radcliffe. Soon after became a member of the Socialist Party.
First half of the 20th century – Became a celebrity and lecturer, sharing her experiences with audiences and working on behalf of others living with disabilities. She addressed women’s suffrage, pacifism and birth control. She testified before Congress, strongly advocating for the welfare of blind and deaf-blind people.
1909—1921 – Wrote several articles about socialism and supported Eugene Debs, a Socialist Party presidential candidate. Her series of essays on socialism, entitled “Out of the Dark,” described her views on socialism and world affairs.
1915 – With renowned city planner George Kessler, co-founded Helen Keller International to combat the causes and consequences of blindness and malnutrition.
1920 – Co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union.
1924 – Became a member of the American Federation for the Blind which provided an effective national outlet for her efforts. She participated in many campaigns to raise awareness, money and support for the blind. She joined other organizations as well, including the Permanent Blind War Relief Fund (later called the American Braille Press).
1936 – Her beloved teacher and devoted companion, Anne Sullivan, died. Polly Thompson, who had begun working as a secretary for Keller and Sullivan in 1914, became Keller’s constant companion upon Sullivan’s death.
1946 – Appointed counselor of international relations for the American Foundation of Overseas Blind.
1946—1957 – Traveled to 35 countries on five continents.
1955 – At age 75, embarked on the longest and most grueling trip of her life: a 40,000-mile, five-month trek across Asia. Through her many speeches and appearances, she brought inspiration and encouragement to millions of people.
1957 television drama / 1959 Broadway play / 1962 award-winning film – The Miracle Worker, by William Gibson, was based on the autobiography, The Story of My Life. The play and the film starred Patty Duke as Keller and Anne Bancroft as Sullivan.
1961 – Suffered a series of strokes and spent the remaining years of her life at her home in Connecticut.
Keller died in her sleep on June 1, 1968, just a few weeks before her 88th birthday.