Helen Keller

Helen Keller Biography

Helen Adams Keller was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama, on June 27, 1880.  She was the first child of Kate Adams Keller and Captain Arthur Keller, a former officer of the Confederate army and publisher of the newspaper The North Alabamian.  She was a bright, independent child until her second winter, when she had a bout with a disease called by the doctors of the time “brain fever.”  The doctor did not expect her to live.  When she did survive, it took the Kellers a few days to realize that the baby's hearing and sight were lost.

Helen Keller could not learn to talk because she could not hear.  She was afraid to walk unless she was clinging to her mother's long skirts.  She would throw wild temper-tantrums, driven to frustration by her inability to express herself.  She would often refuse to let anyone comb her hair or straighten her clothes.  Some in her family urged her mother to have her put away.

Captain and Mrs. Keller searched tirelessly for someone who could help them with Helen. Finally, an article by Charles Dickens in his book American Notes came to their attention. Although it had been written more than 40 years previously, it discussed the successes of the Perkins Institution for the Blind.  One student was not only blind, but deaf.  The teachers were able to reach Laura Bridgman and teach her to communicate.

The Kellers were eventually referred to a noted advocate for people who were deaf, Alexander Graham Bell.  Dr. Bell was an acquaintance of Dr. Johnson, the founder of Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind (AIDB), and his son Hal Johnson who became the Institute's second leader.  AIDB did not have a program for deaf-blind students at the time.  Dr. Bell also told the Kellers about the Perkins Institution.  The school in Boston was the only school in the country with experience teaching people with dual sensory loss, so the family decided that they should contact Perkins for help.

The Perkins Institution for the Blind was happy to send a teacher to the Kellers.  She was Anne Sullivan, a recent graduate of the Institution who had low vision.  Anne Sullivan studied the techniques used to teach Laura Bridgman fingerspelling, and took a train down to Tuscumbia in March 1887.  Her new pupil was stubborn, strong and used to having her own way, but Anne Sullivan was equally stubborn and strong-willed.

A magical transformation began as soon as Helen's quick, young mind made the connection between objects and the strange movements of her teacher's fingers traced out in the child's palm.  Helen began a lifelong, insatiable quest for knowledge.  She demanded to know the names of every object around her.  She soon mastered Braille, and began to read, expanding her horizons even further.  She learned to write and began developing a talent that would serve her all her life.

Education became Helen's lifeline to the world.  She wrote to her father in 1891, at age 11;

"I cannot believe that parents would keep their deaf or blind children at home to grow up in silence and darkness if they knew there was a good school at Talladega where they would be kindly and wisely treated.  Little deaf and blind children love to learn...and God means that they shall be taught.  He has given them minds that can understand and hands with sensitive fingertips that are almost as good as eyes.  I cannot see or hear, and yet I have been taught to do nearly everything that other girls do.  I am happy all the day long because education has brought light and music to my soul...."

However much Helen learned, she would always be dependent on someone to guide her and interpret the visual world into her hand.  Anne Sullivan became that guide, accompanying her pupil to Boston and the Perkins Institution, later to Radcliffe College, and finally, all over the world.  She became much more than a teacher to Helen. She became a friend and confidante, companion and adviser.

Helen had the intelligence to reach almost any academic goal.  She attended Radcliffe College after meeting admissions requirements no different from those set for sighted students.  She studied the same material in her classes.  The primary difficulty for Helen, which is still a problem for students today who are blind, was obtaining the material she needed in Braille, or finding someone to read the material out loud.

It was during her time at Radcliffe that Helen wrote her first book, The Story of My Life.  It was an instant bestseller.  A young man came to help her prepare the book, and relieve Anne Sullivan of the burden of reading drafts to Helen.  Anne's eyes were troubling her and reading strained them.  John Albert Macy eventually married Anne Sullivan, but the marriage did not last.

Helen's goal after college was to support herself and her teacher by writing books and articles. The public was fascinated by Helen's courageous struggle to overcome deafness and blindness.  Unfortunately, they were not so eager to read Helen's thoughts and opinions on other subjects, which limited her ability to earn a living.  Throughout her life, she fought to remain financially independent, but often had to rely on the help of wealthy patrons to make ends meet.

Helen was a remarkable woman with a number of progressive views on life, work and religion. Born long before women could vote, she was a strong and vocal advocate for women's rights. Conditions in the workplace dismayed her, and she supported the Socialist Party and its reforms.  Helen embraced the religious philosophy of Emanuel Swedenborg, a famous eighteenth-century Swedish philosopher, scientist and theologian.

She became closely associated with Alexander Graham Bell, who was known not only for his invention of the telephone but for his work with people who were deaf.  He believed passionately that people who were deaf must learn to speak in order to become a part of the hearing community.  Helen took innumerable lessons in elocution and speech, but never mastered oral communications to her satisfaction.  It was, perhaps, her only failure.

She became associated with the American Foundation for the Blind in 1923.  She traveled and spoke at fundraising activities throughout the country, Anne Sullivan Macy at her side to introduce her and interpret her remarks to the audience.  Helen also traveled the vaudeville circuit, both to educate the public about deaf-blindness and to earn a living.  Traveling was difficult for her and strenuous for Anne, but it was their best means of support.  A movie based on Helen's life was produced, and she hoped it would prove to be a commercial success, but it was not.

Everywhere she went, people were eager to hear her story and meet this exceptional woman. She was a prolific writer, the world's first expert on deaf-blindness, and an untiring advocate for the prevention of blindness, work opportunities for people who were blind, and many other issues still current today.  When she died at age 87, she had forever changed the public's perception of people with disabilities.