Though Helen Keller may no longer be with us, she remains a well-known name in disability advocacy. You've probably heard her mentioned at some point, but you may not know the details behind this legendary lady. Helen Keller became famous for overcoming adversity, and she accomplished a lot in a life that was both challenging and extraordinary.
Helen Keller was born on June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbia, Alabama. She started speaking at six months and walking at one year. In 1882, Helen contracted a mysterious illness, which doctors at the time called "brain fever." It's speculated that the illness was actually meningitis or scarlet fever. Helen Keller recovered, but the illness left her permanently deaf and blind.
As a child without much means of communicating with the world, Helen Keller's behavior deteriorated. She laughed uncontrollably, threw wild tantrums and grew aggressive. Though many family members suggested Helen be institutionalized, Keller's mother refused. Around that time, she happened to read a travelogue by Charles Dickens, entitled "American Notes." The travelogue described the successful education of a blind and deaf child, encouraging Keller's mother to seek help.
A specialist who examined Helen Keller recommended she meet with the man who invented the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell. Alexander, who was working with deaf children at that time, referred Helen and her family to the Perkins Institute for the Blind. There, they were introduced to Anne Sullivan, a recent Institute graduate who would come to play an enormous role in Helen's life.
Although interested at first, Helen was frustrated at Anne Sullivan's attempts to teach her word recognition through sign language. Helen would refuse to cooperate and throw tantrums until Anne Sullivan finally demanded that Helen be removed from her family home so that Anne could live with Helen in a private cottage and teach her without distraction.
Although Anne Sullivan continued her attempts to teach Helen Keller speech through sign language, Anne did not feel that Helen placed any meaning to the words. That all changed one day while Anne was flushing water on Helen's hand. She helped Helen sign w-a-t-e-r with one hand while Anne pumped water out over her other hand. Helen made the connection, then pounded the ground until Anne helped her sign its "letter name." Anne followed Helen as she raced from object to object, demanding to know what they were called. The breakthrough at the water pump paved the way for Helen Keller to learn how to use sign language to meaningfully communicate with others.
Despite her disabilities, Helen Keller was determined to receive a higher education. After enrolling in speech classes at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf and taking academic classes at the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf, Helen attended a preparatory school for girls in Cambridge. There, she met famous author Mark Twain. Twain and Helen quickly became friends, leading Twain to introduce Helen to a Standard Oil executive named Henry R. Rogers. Rogers was so impressed by Helen's desire to learn that he paid for her enrollment into Radcliffe College, the most auspicious college a woman could attend in America at the time.
Helen Keller encountered prejudice from many of her fellow students, who harbored the common belief at the time that disabled individuals were of below-average intelligence. Despite this fact, Helen Keller graduated cum laude from Radliffe College at age 24. With the help of Anne Sullivan, who remained by her side, Helen Keller also mastered multiple forms of communication, including Braille, typing, sign language, and touch-lip reading.
After graduating from college, Helen Keller went on to lecture about her life and tackled many social issues of the time. She spoke publicly about birth control, women's suffrage and pacifism. Helen also co-founded Helen Keller International in 1915 to help combat the consequences of blindness, malnutrition and poor health. By 1957, she had traveled across five continents to advocate for improved care and facilities for the blind.
Helen Keller received the Theodore Roosevelt Distinguished Service Medal in 1936 in honor of her many accomplishments. She was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964. In 1965, Helen was elected into the Women's Hall of Fame. She was named Honorary Fellow of the Educational Institute of Scotland and received honorary doctoral degrees at institutions in multiple countries, including Germany, India and South Africa.
While attending Radcliffe College, Helen Keller wrote "The Story of my Life." This autobiography inspired the 1957 television drama, "The Miracle Worker." In 1959, renowned actress Patty Duke played the role of Helen, while Ann Bancroft played Anne Sullivan in a Broadway play of the same title. In 1962, the two actresses revised their roles in the critically acclaimed movie version of "The Miracle Worker," which showcased Helen's extraordinary life to a global audience and etched her into our language as a go-to name when it comes to overcoming great adversity.