Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be blind? How about being deaf? What about being both at the same time? I bet you think it would be a nightmare, and that you’d never be able to deal with it, much less get used to it. However, according to the World Health Organization, 253 million people in the world are blind or visually impaired, 466 million have disabling hearing loss, and an estimated 40,000 people in the United States are deaf-blind. That means there are nearly a billion people out there living with these disabilities. It might seem impossible to us, but they’ve all learned to perceive the world in a different way. Helen Keller was no different. She carved out a permanent spot in history for herself; her determination to get an education despite her disabilities and willingness to work on behalf of others made her a vital figure in 20th-century society and on.
Helen Keller was born on June 7, 1880, in Tuscumbia, Alabama. When she was just two years old, she contracted an unknown illness that left her both blind and deaf. As a child, she was barely able to communicate with those around her, so she would often throw tantrums out of frustration. I mean, can you blame her?
Desperate for a solution, her family sought professional help, and eventually came upon the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, Massachusetts, courtesy of Alexander Graham Bell (yes, the one who invented the telephone!), who recommended they visit it. There, they hired Anne Sullivan to work with young Keller, and bring her out of her world of silence and darkness.
It was a lot of hard work, but with Sullivan by her side, Keller eventually learned to fingerspell, a method of communication by which a person traces individual letters onto another’s skin. To expand her ability to communicate with others, Keller began taking speech classes at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf in Boston in 1890. She also pursued regular academics, attending the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf in New York City in 1894 and the Cambridge School for Young Ladies in 1896.
Ambitious from an early age, Keller set her heart on attending college. Her story had begun to spread, and it reached the ears of many, including those of famous writer Mark Twain! The friendship that formed between them turned out to be Keller’s golden ticket to a higher education. Through Twain, she met Henry H. Rogers, a wealthy owner of an oil company who was inspired by her willpower and agreed to pay her way through Radcliffe College, from which she graduated in 1904–talk about financial aid.
At 23, Keller wrote her first book of many, an autobiography titled The Story of My Life. It followed the events of her childhood and adolescence, detailing the work she did with Anne Sullivan and her struggle, which later turned to determination, to understand and communicate with the world around her.
From that moment on, she rose to become a prominent and influential activist and humanitarian. She offered lectures, where she inspired those who would listen by telling her story, and tirelessly advocated for the welfare of others with disabilities. She went as far as to co-found several organizations, such as Helen Keller International in 1915 and the American Civil Liberties Union in 1920. In addition, she joined the American Federation for the Blind in 1924, the Permanent Blind War Relief Fund (later called the American Braille Press), and was named counselor of international relations for the American Foundation for Overseas Blind in 1946. Thanks to the latter, she visited over 35 countries on 5 continents. Fun fact: she was also a known suffragist and supported pacifism and birth control.
Keller was internationally recognized and rewarded for her efforts. She received the Theodore Roosevelt Distinguished Service Medal in 1936, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964, and was commemorated in the Women’s Hall of Fame in 1965. She was also awarded honorary doctoral degrees from, get ready: Temple University, Harvard University, Glasgow University in Scotland, Berlin University in Germany, Delhi University in India, and Witwatersrand University in South Africa. Wow.
Sadly, not even powerful women like Helen Keller can live forever. After suffering a series of strokes, she died on June 1, 1968, at the age of 87. Nonetheless, the legacy she left transcended over the decades. Her story continues to impact and motivate people all over the world. Her strength, resilience, and spirit transformed her into a beacon of hope for all of us, especially those living with the same disabilities she had. If she did it, so can you.
Sources: Helen Keller Biography