The well-known deaf and blind Helen Adams Keller was born on 27 June 1880 in Tuscumbia, a small rural town in Northwest Alabama in the USA. Keller was the daughter of Captain Arthur Henley Keller and Kate Adams, and was born with full sight and hearing. Her father earned a living as cotton plantation owner, and was also the editor of a weekly local newspaper – the “North Alabamian”. Her mother assisted with the family income as the family could not be considered as being wealthy.
During February 1882, when Keller was only nineteen months old, she became ill, and the nature of the illness and accompanying fever to this day still remains a mystery. The doctors who treated her diagnosed her illness as “brain fever”, but nowadays doctors think that it may have been scarlet fever or meningitis.
When she became “healthy” again, Keller’s life underwent a dramatic change. The parents soon discovered that their daughter failed to respond when the dinner bell rang or when a hand was passed in front of her eyes. During the years that followed Keller became a very difficult child, smashing dishes and lamps and terrorizing the whole household with her screaming and temper tantrums. Three years later, when she was six, her parents had become desperate, and looking after their daughter became too much for them, but they still had hope for her. The parents read Charles Dickens’ report (“American Notes”) about the assistance that was given to another blind and deaf girl – Laura Bridgman.
At the age of six Keller’s parents took her to meet Alexander Graham Bell, the renowned teacher of the deaf, and inventor of the telephone. Following his advice, Anne (Annie) Mansfield Sullivan began to teach Helen on 3 March 1887. She remained Keller’s teacher and constant companion until her death in 1936. Anne and Keller moved into a small cottage on the land of the main house where Initially Anne had to cope with numerous problems, but over the following weeks, Keller’s behavior did begin to improve as a strong tie developed between the two.
Keller soon learned the finger-tip or manual alphabet as well as Braille. Three years after mastering the manual alphabet, she learned to speak herself. Her progress was astonishing. Her ability to learn was far more developed than anything that anybody had seen before in someone without sight or hearing. It did not take Anne long before teaching Keller to read, initially with raised letters, and later with Braille, and to write with both ordinary as well as Braille typewriters. Three years after getting the better of the manual alphabet, she learned to speak herself.
Michael Anagnos was keen to promote Keller. In one of the numerous articles that he wrote on her said that “she is a phenomenon”. His articles led to a wave of publicity regarding Keller and were published with pictures of her reading Shakespeare or stroking her dog. The articles appeared in national newspapers.
When she was about 10 years old (1890) she was living at the Perkins Institute, and was still taught by Anne. In March 1880 Keller met Mary Swift Lamson who, over the coming year, was to try to teach her to speak. She succeeded in learning to speak when she was ten by feeling her teacher’s mouth when she talked. Meanwhile, she learned to read French, German, Greek, and Latin in Braille.
At the age of 20 she entered RadcliffeCollege, and received her Bachelor of Arts degree with honours in 1904. She was the first deafblind person to have ever enrolled at an institution of higher education. It was sad that Keller’s speech never really improved beyond the sounds that only Anne and a few others very close to her could understand.
During her studies at the College Keller began to write about her life. It was at this stage that she and Anne met with John Albert Macy who was to help edit Keller’s first book – The Story of My Life -, which was published in 1903 and even though it sold slowly at first it has since become a classic.
Keller became a world famous speaker, author and advocate for people with disabilities. In 1915 she founded HKI (Helen Keller International), a non-profit organization for preventing blindness and malnutrition. As a firm believer in human rights, she assisted in establishing the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) in 1920. Much of her later life was devoted to raising funds for the American Foundation for the Blind and Overseas Blind.
Between 1946 and 1957 she toured around the world, speaking about the experiences and rights of people who are blind. She ended up visiting 39 countries on five different continents, and wrote nearly a dozen books. She met 12 American presidents, and in 1931 met King George and Queen Mary at BuckinghamPalace.
During her remarkable life Keller stood as a role model of how determination and hard work can overcome the greatest of challenges. She received many awards for her work, including the Theodore Roosevelt Distinguished Service Medal (1936) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964.
Her last years she spent at her home near Easton, Connecticut. She still wrote and worked for the benefit of the blind and deaf. She died at the age of 87 at her home on 1 June 1968. She was cremated in Bridgeport, Connecticut and a funeral service was held at the National Cathedral in Washington DC.