The Woman, The Legend, The Hero: Helen Keller


Have you ever thought about how hard it is to learn a new language? Well, think about doing that without being able to see or hear. Helen Keller succeeded to learn several languages by the time she was 30. Helen Keller became very successful in her endeavors and leapt over great obstacles in her life such as speaking several languages, handwriting, typewriting, and learning how to use sign-language.

Helen Keller’s life started off as an infant with functioning eyes and ears, until the age of about 18 months, when she contracted a virus called “brain fever.” It is now believed she could have had Scarlet fever or Meningitis, which led her to lose her sight and hearing. Up until the age of seven, she was an unwilling, cantankerous child, who was often screaming and throwing fits when she was not understood. Her parents went out looking for help, and were referred to Alexander Graham Bell, who had been recently working with deaf children. Bell advised Helen’s parents to contact the Perkins Institute for the Blind, and the Institute sent 20 year-old former student, Anne Sullivan, to be Helen’s mentor. Anne herself was blind until she went through several experimental surgeries that successfully partially-restored her sight.


It took several weeks, even months, for Helen to learn how to read. Sullivan spent weeks working with Keller to try to get her to connect the name of an object and the actual object. When Anne tried to teach Helen the word “mug,” Helen got confused between mug, water, and drink. She grew so frustrated, she broke the mug. Weeks passed, and finally, in a fit of rage, Anne brought Helen out to the water pump and put Helen’s left hand under the running water, meanwhile spelling w-a-t-e-r in her right hand again, and again. After so long, a light of understanding had bloomed in Helen’s mind. This was a turning point in her story, and she dragged Sullivan all over the place that day forcing Anne to spell out the names common day objects. At the end of the day, Helen had learned over 30 words! Anne herself quoted, “My heart is singing for joy this morning! A miracle has happened! The light of understanding has shone upon my little pupil’s mind, and behold, all things are changed!”


Helen spent year after year, learning new words and finally was accepted into Radcliffe College, a well respected university. Mark Twain, one of her many admirers, convinced oil standard magnate Henry Huttleston Rogers and his wife, Abbie, to pay for Helen’s education. In Radcliffe, she learned how to speak, although not clearly, and learned English, French, German, and Latin. She also learned how to read and write in Braille and English. She graduated from Radcliffe in 1904, at age of 24, as the first deaf-blind person to earn a bachelor’s degree in art.


Helen Keller then began a trip around the world, giving speeches and lectures on the rights of people with disabilities, such as herself, and the rights of women around the world. She founded many organizations such as the Helen Keller International Organization and the American Civil Liberties Union. Helen had a bout of depression after her lifelong friend Anne Sullivan died from coronary thrombosis (a blockage of the flow of blood to the heart, caused by a blood clot in a coronary artery) while Helen was holding her hand in 1936. After years of touring the world, Helen had a series of strokes in 1961 that forced her to retire to her house for the last couple years of her life. On September 14, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded Helen the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the United States’ two highest civilian honors. She was also elected to the National Women’s Hall of Fame. Helen Keller died in her sleep on June 1, 1968, a few weeks short of her eighty-eighth birthday. She was cremated in the National Cathedral, Washington D.C, and was placed next to her lifelong companion, Anne Sullivan.


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