I'm not sure if it should be said that it's ironic that Helen Keller's name, Helen, means light... especially because of the fact that she lost her vision and became mute February 1882. Born June 27, 1880 in Tuscumbia, Alabama to Captain Arthur Henley Keller, a cotton plantation owner and editor of a weekly paper, she had four other siblings; two half-brothers, one biological sister, Mildred and brother, Phillip. Her mother Kate Keller, was described as a private and aloof, and realized that Helen had lost her sight one day as she ran her hand in front of her face.
To work with Helen, the family hired Anne Sullivan at $25/mo including room and board. Anne's family fled from Ireland as a result of the potato famine in the mid-1800s and she would become Helen's teacher and lifelong companion. Her ideas on teaching Helen language were based on the same principles by which a hearing child learns language. In the same manner that a child with normal hearing learn to speak by listening to language from parents and caretakers, Sullivan communicated with Helen constantly using completed sentences as she spelled into her hands. By March 31, 1887, Helen Keller knew 18 nouns, and 13 verbs.
Within months, she was learning to read and write in style called square hand. She later learned Braille, invented by Louis Braille on a system of six raised dots that the blind read with their fingertips. At the time, there was no unified Braille system... variations included American Braille, New York Point, European Braille, Moon Type and Boston Line Type. By 1932, a Standard English Braille would be established.
In addition to her studies, Helen's days were filled with a variety of experiences. Helen and her teacher, Anne, took walks where she learned to distinguish flowers by feeling their stems and petals. "She caught butterflies and tadpoles and ran her hands over the bodies of animals in the woods in order to learn what they were like. She felt a baby chick pecking its way out of the shell and touched the wings of a pigeon."
When she learned that Ragnhild Kaata was deaf and blind but able to speak, she became determined to speak herself. In March of 1890, she and Anne Sullivan traveled to see Sarah Fuller, a principal of the Horace Mann School for the Deaf in Boston. She learned six elements of speech; M, P, A, S, T, I, but was never able to reach natural pitch in volume. Her first connected sentence was, "It is warm."
"Last evening I went out into the yard and spoke to the moon I said, 'O moon, come to me. Do you think the lovely moon was glad that I could speak to her?"
She was introduced to Swedenborgianism by Alexander Graham Bell's Secretary, John Hitz. A religious teaching based on writings of 18th centrury Swedish scientist and philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, it promised an afterlife where people did not suffer handicaps or limitations and followed its teaching the remainder of her life.
At the age of 20, she began freshman year at Radcliff College September 1900 at age 20. Her class, which constituted of about 100 women, was the largest in the school's history and she graduated Cum Laude (with honors) June 28, 1994. The first deaf and blind person to earn bachelor's of arts degree.
Following, she decided to work on behalf of the blind, campaigning that the major cause of blindness in infants was a condition called ophthalma neonatarum, which passed to children by mothers infected w/ certain venereal disease. As a preventative, newborns were treated with silver nitrate drops.
She spoke at the annual convention of the American Association of Workers for the Blind and was appointed a member of the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind in 1906. She wrote a total of 12 books, countless articles, traveled the world giving lectures, and visiting schools to promote the cause. Following a trip to Hiroshima, she became determined to fight for world peace. From 1900 to 1924, Helen and Anne traveled around the country performing on the Vaudeville circuit appearing alongside acrobats, monkeys, horses, dogs, and parrots earning more money than they'd made from books and lectures.
She was the first woman to receive an honorary degree from Harvard University, was awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964 by President Lyndon Johnson and elected to Women's Hall of Fame in 1965. In May 1968, she suffered a heart attack and died on June 1, weeks before her 88th birthday. Anne Sullivan's death preceded hers, she died October 20, 1936 at age 70.
"Face your deficiencies and acknowledge them but do not let them master you."
- Ford, Carin T. Helen Keller: Lighting the Way for the Blind and the Deaf. Enslow Publishers, Inc., 2001.
- “A Short History of the Braille Authority of North America in the United States.” History of BANA,