Keller was born on 27 June 1880 in Alabama, the daughter of a
newspaper editor. Before her illness she was a lively and
healthy child with a friendly personality. She could walk and
even say a few simple words. The fever cut her off from the
outside world, depriving her of sight and sound. It was as if
she had been thrown into a dark prison cell from which there
could be no release. Luckily
Helen was not someone who gave up easily.
Soon she began to
explore the world by using her other senses. She followed her
mother wherever she went, hanging onto her skirts. She touched
and smelled everything she came across and felt other people's
hands to see what they were doing. She copied their actions and
was soon able to do certain jobs herself, like milking the cows
or kneading dough. She even learned to recognize people by
feeling their faces or their clothes. She could also tell where
she was in the garden by the smell of the different plants and
the feel of the ground under her feet.
age of seven she had invented over 60 different signs by which
she could talk to her family. If she wanted bread for example,
she would pretend to cut a loaf and butter the slices. If she
wanted ice cream she wrapped her arms around herself and
pretended to shiver.
Helen was unusual in that she was extremely intelligent and also
remarkably sensitive. By her own efforts she had managed to make
some sense of an alien and confusing world. But even she had
age of five Helen began to realize she was different from other
people. She noticed that her family did not use signs like she
did but talked with their mouths. Sometimes she stood between
two people and touched their lips. She could not understand what
they said and she could not make any meaningful sounds herself.
She wanted to talk but no matter how she tried she could not
make herself understood. This made her so angry that she used to
hurl herself around the room, kicking and screaming in
got older her frustration grew and her rages became worse and
worse. She became wild and unruly. If she didn't get what she
wanted she would throw tantrums until her family gave in. Her
favorite tricks included grabbing other people's food from their
plates and hurling fragile objects to the floor. Once she even
managed to lock her mother into the pantry. Eventually it became
clear that something had to be done. So, just before her seventh
birthday, the family hired a private tutor.
Sullivan came from a background of extreme misery and poverty.
She had lost her own sight when she was five and had been thrown
into the poor house when her family broke up. Eventually she was
lucky enough to get a place at the Perkins School for the Blind
she earned the nickname 'Spitfire' because of her rudeness and
bad behavior. Fortunately the director realized that if she
could learn to behave she would be one of his most talented
pupils. After several years, and two successful operations to
restore her sight, she graduated with honors. It was clear to
the director that this was the person to tame Helen Keller.
Anne soon realized the cause of
Helen's tantrums. She knew that if she could teach her to
communicate she would become a different person. Even so, before
she could teach this wild child, she had to control her. When
she tried to get Helen to do something she didn't like Helen
would scream and kick and bite. Anne eventually won these
battles by sheer will power and persistence.
next breakthrough came when Anne decided to teach Helen the
manual alphabet. This is a sign language in which each letter is
signed onto the hand of the deaf-blind person so that he or she
can feel it. Each letter has a separate sign. This means that
words and sentences can be spelled. It also means that complex
ideas can be expressed.
Anne led Helen to the water-pump and pumped water onto her hand.
As she did so she spelt out the individual letters, W A TE R.
She did this again and again. Suddenly Helen realized that the
individual signs represented the letters that made up the word
Water. In the same instant she also realized that everything
else in the world must have a name. She rushed about touching
anything she could find and asking Anne what it was called.
continued to teach Helen in this way for the next few years. She
talked to her about all the things that were happening around
them. She spelled everything into her hand using complete
sentences rather than single words. In this way Helen gained a
great deal of information in the same way that a hearing child
does. By doing this, Anne was equipping her pupil with the words
and the ideas she would need when she was ready to talk.
was careful to teach Helen about those subjects in which she was
interested. The two of them would wander through the fields
discussing whatever ideas came into Helen's mind. In this way
Anne managed to keep Helen intensely interested in a wide range
of subjects. It also meant that they could pursue a number of
exciting hobbies, such as sailing and tobogganing.
result Helen became gentler and she soon learnt to read and
write in Braille. She also learned to read people's lips by
pressing her fingertips against them and feeling the movement
and vibrations. This method is called Tadoma and it is a skill
that very, very few people manage to acquire. She also learned
to speak, a major achievement for someone who could not hear at
Anne decided that Helen needed more formal instruction if she
was to achieve her ambition of going to college. In 1888 they
both went to the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston. Here
Anne continued to teach Helen with the equipment and books provided by the school. Then in 1894 they
went to the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf in New York. Anne
attended the lessons with Helen and acted as her interpreter.
She tapped out what the teachers said into Helen's hand and
transcribed book after book into Braille.
proved to be a remarkable scholar, graduating with honors from
Radcliffe College in 1904. She had phenomenal powers of
concentration and memory, as well as a dogged determination to
succeed. While she was still at college she wrote' The Story of
My Life'. This was an immediate success and earned her enough
money to buy her own house.
was very religious and her faith led her to examine the world
more and more carefully. She began to realize that there was
great injustice in the world and that people were not treated
equally. Blindness was often caused by disease which was itself
often caused by poverty. She became a suffragette and a
socialist, demanding equal rights for women and better pay for
working class people. She also helped set up the American
Foundation for the Blind in order to provide better services to
people with impaired vision.
She toured the country, giving lecture after lecture. Many books
were written about her and several plays and films were made
about her life. Eventually she became so famous that she was
invited abroad and received many honors from foreign
universities and monarchs. In 1932 she became a vice-president
of the Royal National Institute for the Blind in the United
Kingdom. After her death
in 1968 an organization was set up in her name to combat
blindness in the developing world. Today that agency, Helen
Keller International, is one of the biggest organizations
working with blind people overseas.
important to remember that without the help of others Helen
Keller would never have succeeded as she did. She relied a great
deal on Anne Sullivan, who accompanied her everywhere for almost
fifty years. Without her faithful teacher Helen would probably
have remained trapped within an isolated and confused world.
so, there is no doubt that Helen Keller was quite remarkable.
She was extremely intelligent, sensitive and determined. She was
certainly the first deaf-blind person to make such a public
success of her life. But she is not the only person with a
hearing and sight impairment to succeed. She is simply the best
her biggest success was in persuading others that disability is
not the end of the world. One Japanese lady said of her,
many generations, more than we can count, we bowed our heads and
submitted to blindness and beggary. This blind and deaf woman
lifts her head high and teaches us to win our way by work and
laughter. She brings light and hope to the heart'.
Photo's Library Of Congress
listed under Public Domain. Source information
provided by the Helen Keller
Foundation, and authorized for non profit reprint.
All rights reserved
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