An Incredible Life Remembered: Helen Keller
Words by Isaac Ray Norris
Everyone knows the story of Helen Keller’s disability: as a baby, she lost her ability to see and hear, and would eventually meet Anne Sullivan. Anne helped Keller develop her skills of speech, as made famous by the scene with the waterpump in the Academy Award winning film, “The Miracle Worker.”
But what about Helen Keller’s life beyond her disability? What did she make of herself? Who did she become? How did she lead her life?
Many people are unaware of the great strides Keller made for the disabled, for women, and for the disenfranchised as a whole.
In 1890, Keller began speech classes at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf in Boston, Massachusetts. From 1894 to 1896, she attended Wright-Humason School for the Deaf in New York City. In 1896, she attended the Cambridge School for Young Ladies, and it was there that she began to attain celebrity status.
Keller quickly befriended Mark Twain, who then introduced her to Henry H. Rogers, a Standard Oil executive. Rogers was so impressed by Keller’s skills, determination, and one might say - grit - that he offered to pay for all of her schooling at Radcliffe College. Sullivan went along with Keller and interpreted all of her lessons and texts.
In her later years of college, Keller wrote her first book, “The Story of My Life.” The book covered her first 21 years of life and would serve as the basis for a broadway play, television series, and the film, “The Miracle Worker.”
Keller graduate cum laude from Radcliffe in 1904 at the age of 24.
Keller was involved in a many social progress projects. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Keller tackled social and political issues, including women's suffrage, pacifism and birth control. She testified before Congress, strongly advocating to improve the welfare of blind people. In 1915, along with renowned city planner George Kessler, she co-founded Helen Keller International to combat the causes and consequences of blindness and malnutrition. In 1920, she helped found the American Civil Liberties Union.
Soon after graduating college, Keller became a member of the Socialist Party. Between 1909 and 1921, Keller wrote several articles about socialism and supported Eugene Debs, a Socialist Party presidential candidate. Her series of essays on socialism, entitled "Out of the Dark," described her views on socialism and world affairs.
Work and Influence
In 1936, Keller’s beloved teacher and devoted companion, Anne Sullivan, died. Keller’s secretary, Polly Thomson, took over as Keller’s constant companion.
In 1946, Keller was appointed counselor of international relations for the American Foundation of Overseas Blind. Between 1946 and 1957, she traveled to 35 countries on five continents. In 1955, at age 75, Keller embarked on the longest and most grueling trip of her life: a 40,000-mile, five-month trek across Asia. Through her many speeches and appearances, she brought inspiration and encouragement to millions of people.
Keller suffered a series of strokes in 1961, and spent the remaining years of her life at her home in Connecticut. During her lifetime, she received many honors in recognition of her accomplishments, including the Theodore Roosevelt Distinguished Service Medal in 1936, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964, and election to the Women's Hall of Fame in 1965. She also received honorary doctoral degrees from Temple University and Harvard University and from the universities of Glasgow, Scotland; Berlin, Germany; Delhi, India; and Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. Additionally, she was named an Honorary Fellow of the Educational Institute of Scotland.
Keller died in her sleep in 1968, weeks before her 88th birthday. Because of her hard work and determination, Keller became a world renowned figure for social activism and people with disabilities.
On June 1, 1980, President Jimmy Carter proclaimed June 27, Keller’s birthday, as Helen Keller Day.