FORT WORTH, Texas, June 25, 2015 — Helen Keller was one of the first, and one of the most respected, advocates for women, minorities and the disabled to enjoy the rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…..~ Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776
From the beginning the signers of this treasonous document knew it wouldn’t grant freedom for everyone. Laying the groundwork for it was the best they could do at the time. The stroke of a pen does not change people’s hearts.
Freedom as a concept and freedom as a reality are two separate things, and regrettably, not every American has enjoyed the taste of freedom without significant personal sacrifice.
For some groups, rights were not bestowed willingly. Black Americans have had to fight long and hard for their chance at “the pursuit of happiness,” as have the disabled. Probably the most famous “disabled” American is Helen Keller.
The last week of June marks Helen Keller Blind-Deaf Awareness Week. Keller embodied the American dream and demonstrated what true freedom is all about.
Helen Keller became deaf and blind as a result of a severe illness as an infant that left her enslaved in a life that only she could change.
Born in Tuscumbia, Ala., in June 1880, Helen Adams Keller was born a healthy child. The illness that struck her 19 months later left her blind and deaf before she learned to speak. At that time, society urged parents to keep disabled children hidden at home or to send them to an institution. Capt. and Mrs. Keller didn’t share that sentiment.
Mrs. Keller had read Charles Dickens’ account of Laura Bridgman in “American Notes.” Miss Bridgman was born 50 years before and also became deaf-blind as a result of illness. At the age of 2, she not only lost the senses of sight and hearing but also smell and taste.
In 1837, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe brought Laura to the Perkins Institute for the Blind. Through touch only, Laura learned to read and write using tactile sign and raised letters. She was one of the first disabled persons to receive a broad education this way. It was also Bridgman who taught Anne Sullivan sign language and made the doll with which Sullivan later taught Helen Keller.
Inspired by this account, the Kellers took Helen to see Dr. J. Julian Chisolm, an eye, ear, nose and throat specialist in Baltimore. He in turn put them in touch with Alexander Graham Bell, noted for his work with the deaf as well as being the inventor of the telephone.
With his help they hired a teacher, the 20-year-old Anne Sullivan, a graduate of the Perkins School for the Blind. At one time fully blind herself, Anne regained her sight as the result of several surgeries.
Helen called the day she met Anne Sullivan “the most important day I can remember in my life.”
Helen’s family hadn’t been able to communicate with their child. Not being able to connect with the world around her made the regular paths of learning useless. As a result, the very young Helen became wild and unruly.
Until Anne Sullivan came on the scene, silence and darkness were all that Helen knew. Sullivan started teaching Helen by spelling letters into her hand. Starting with d-o-l-l, Anne hoped Helen would connect the objects with the letters. Soon the student could form the letters correctly and in the right order.
But they didn’t have meaning to her for a time. Then one day while pumping water, Anne once again spelled w-a-t-e-r into Helen’s hand, her brain suddenly made the connection. Immediately the girl patted the ground with her hands demanding to know what that was: g-r-o-u-n-d.
By that night, Helen had learned thirty words. She followed up with learning the entire alphabet and learned to read using raised letters. Soon after that, she was reading and writing.
At about 10 years old, Helen found out about a blind-deaf girl in Norway who had learned to speak. She wanted to do the same, and in 1894, she and Anne moved to New York so Helen could attend the Horace Mann School to learn to speak. That year also brought her to the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf in New York City, and two years later Helen attended the Cambridge School for Young Ladies in Massachusetts.
As a small child, Helen had asserted that she would go to college. In the fall of 1900, her wish came true when she entered Radcliffe College as a freshman. After four years of diligent work she received her bachelor of arts degree cum laude in 1904.
Helen Keller became the first blind-deaf person to gain a bachelor of arts degree. And she did it with Anne Sullivan at her side signing the letters from every book and every lecture into her hand.
During school, she became a published author and continued to write for the next 50 years. The Ladies Home Journal printed Helen’s first piece, “The Story of My Life,” as a serial. This is still the most popular of her works and today is available in more than 50 languages.
Click here for a list of her work.
By this time Helen was pretty well known. In addition to being an author and speaker, she became a social activist. With all she learned about the world, Helen was determined to use her celebrity to make the world a better and safer place. She stated: “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.”
The rights and prospects for women back then were severely limited. Women couldn’t vote, have a bank account, own land or get a loan. There were very few occupations open to them.
If a woman didn’t have a father, husband, brother or uncle who made sure she had a home, food and clothes, prostitution was just about the only way for a woman to make a living. This lifestyle of course often leads to syphilis, a leading cause of blindness.
Helen advocated for women’s suffrage, pacifism, socialism, the working class and birth control.
Helen worked tirelessly for these changes, but she never lost sight of blind and deaf-blind individuals and earned praise and honor from all over the globe. The accolades are so numerous that there isn’t enough room in this article to list them all here. The Helen Keller Archives house them at the American Institute for the Blind in New York City.
Brazil’s Order of the Southern Cross
Japan’s Sacred Treasure
The Philippines’ Golden Heart
Lebanon’s Gold Medal of Merit
U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom
In 1933, elected to membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters
Chevalier of the French Legion
Helen’s birthplace, Ivy Green in Tuscumbia, Ala., named a national shrine in 1954
In 2003, Alabama put Helen on its state quarter
In 2009, Alabama honored Helen with a bronze statue of her likeness in the National Statuary Hall Collection at the U.S. Capitol.
These honors created enough curiosity om the general public that they wanted to know more. Helen gave her blessing to two films made about her life. The premier of “The Unconquered” marked the occasion of “Ivy Green” being made a national shrine in 1954. The film was later renamed “Helen Keller in Her Story.”
The most widely known film about Helen is “The Miracle Worker,” adapted from the play by William Gibson. It starred Anne Bancroft as Anne Sullivan and a young Patty Duke as the 7-year-old Helen.
Both films won prestigious awards from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “The Unconquered” earned an Oscar for the best documentary in 1955. “The Miracle Worker” won for both best actress and best supporting actress categories in 1962.
Two made-for-TV movies have been made of Gibson’s play. “The Miracle Continues,” made in 1984, is another film that gives a further account of the adult life of Helen Keller.
From the time she was young until she was 81 years old, Helen worked to “shout from the rooftops” on behalf of the disabled. Most of all Helen showed up an able-bodied world and gave hope to other disabled people by her own example of what they could accomplish.
Initially held back by disability, Helen didn’t take long for to find her way once Anne Sullivan helped her open the door to a life of her own choosing. She lived her dreams and found passions within her that she cherished until the day she died — unheard of for a woman and for a disabled person in the 19th century.
When Helen Keller broke down the barriers that held her back, they stayed down so all those with disabilities could come through too.
In his eulogy of her at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C., Sen. Lister Hill of Alabama declared,
“She will live on, one of the few, the immortal names not born to die. Her spirit will endure as long as man can read and stories can be told of the woman who showed the world there are no boundaries to courage and faith.”