Throughout Her Life, No Matter Where She Went or What She Attempted, She Worked Miracles

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June 27, 1880 - June 1, 1968

Helen Keller ignored deafness and blindness, became a world traveler, suffragist, pacifist, author, rights activist and birth control supporter

To say that she overcame a disability is an understatement. Without sight or or the ability to listen, and speaking haltingly, she walked with presidents, swapped stories with Mark Twain, won an Oscar and battled for the causes she believed in.

Helen Keller was a healthy child in Tuscumbia, AL, on June 27, 1880, or 96 years ago this month, . At the age of 19 months, Helen became deaf and blind as a result of an unknown illness, perhaps rubella or scarlet fever. As Helen grew from infancy into childhood, she became wild and unruly.

That changed on March 3, 1887. On that day, Anne Mansfield Sullivan came to Tuscumbia to be her teacher.

She was a graduate of the Perkins School for the Blind, and stayed with Helen until her death in 1946. Compared with Helen, Anne couldn't have had a more different childhood and upbringing. The daughter of poor Irish immigrants, she entered Perkins at 14 years of age after four horrific years as a ward of the state at the Tewksbury Almshouse in Massachusetts.

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With Anne Sullivan, 1888. Library of Congress photo

She was just 14 years older than Helen, and she too suffered from serious vision problems. Anne underwent many botched operations at a young age before her sight was partially restored.

Her success with Helen remains an extraordinary and remarkable story and is best known to people because of the film "The Miracle Worker". The film correctly depicted Helen as an unruly, spoiled--but very bright--child who tyrannized the household with her temper tantrums.

Anne believed that the key to reaching Helen was to teach her obedience and love. She saw the need to discipline, but not crush, the spirit of her young charge. As a result, within a week of her arrival, she had gained permission to remove Helen from the main house and live alone with her in the nearby cottage. They remained there for two weeks.

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Anne began her task of teaching Helen by manually signing into the child's hand. Anne had brought a doll that the children at Perkins had made for her to take to Helen. By spelling "d-o-l-l" into the child's hand, she hoped to teach her to connect objects with letters.

Helen quickly learned to form the letters correctly and in the correct order, but did not know she was spelling a word, or even that words existed. In the days that followed, she learned to spell a great many more words in this uncomprehending way.

On April 5, 1887, less than a month after her arrival, Anne sought to resolve the confusion her pupil was having between the nouns "mug" and "milk," which Helen confused with the verb "drink."

Anne took Helen to the water pump outside and put Helen's hand under the spout. As the cool water gushed over one hand, she spelled into the other hand the word "w-a-t-e-r" first slowly, then rapidly. Suddenly, the signals had meaning in Helen's mind.

She knew that "water" meant the cool substance flowing over her hand. Quickly, she stopped and touched the earth and demanded its letter name. By nightfall she had learned 30 words.

In 1890, when she was just 10, she expressed a desire to learn to speak; Anne took Helen to see Sarah Fuller at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Boston. Fuller gave Helen 11 lessons, after which Anne taught Helen.

Throughout her life, however, Helen remained dissatisfied with her spoken voice, which was hard to understand.

Helen's extraordinary abilities and her teacher's unique skills were noticed by Alexander Graham Bell and Mark Twain, two giants of American culture. Twain declared, "The two most interesting characters of the 19th century are Napoleon and Helen Keller."

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With Mark Twain who famously said, "The two most interesting characters in the 19th Century are Napoleon and Helen Keller." National Archives photo

The closeness of Helen and Anne's relationship led to accusations that Helen's ideas were not her own. At the age of 11, Helen was accused of plagiarism. Both Bell and Twain, who were friends and supporters of Helen and Anne, flew to the defense of both pupil and teacher and mocked their detractors.

From a very young age, Helen was determined to go to college. In 1898, she entered the Cambridge School for Young Ladies to prepare for Radcliffe College. She entered Radcliffe in the fall of 1900 and received a Bachelor of Arts degree cum laude in 1904, the first deaf-blind person to do so.

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Graduation from Radcliffe College, 1904. Library of Congress photo

While still a student at Radcliffe, Helen began a writing career that was to continue throughout her life. In 1903, her autobiography, "The Story of My Life", was published. This had appeared in serial form the previous year in Ladies' Home Journal magazine.

Her autobiography has been translated into 50 languages and remains in print to this day. Helen's other published works include "Optimism," an essay; "The World I Live In"; "The Song of the Stone Wall"; "Out of the Dark"; "My Religion"; "Midstream--My Later Life"; "Peace at Eventide"; "Helen Keller in Scotland"; "Helen Keller's Journal"; "Let Us Have Faith; Teacher, Anne Sullivan Macy"; and "The Open Door." She was a frequent contributor to magazines and newspapers.

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Reading Braille. National Archives photo

From an early age, she championed the rights of the underdog and used her skills as a writer to speak truth to power. A pacifist, she protested U.S. involvement in World War I. A committed socialist, she took up the cause of workers' rights. She was also a tireless advocate for women's suffrage and an early member of the American Civil Liberties Union.

She was a suffragist, a pacifist, an opponent of Woodrow Wilson, a radical socialist and a birth control supporter. In 1915 she and George Kessler founded the Helen Keller International, an organization devoted to research in vision, health and nutrition.

In 1920 she helped to found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). She was a member of the Socialist Party and actively campaigned and wrote in support of the working class from 1909 to 1921. She supported Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs in each of his campaigns for the presidency.

The American Foundation for the Blind, which she joined AFB in 1921 and worked for the organization for over 40 years, provided her with a global platform to advocate for the needs of people with vision loss and she wasted no opportunity. As a result of her travels across the United States, state commissions for the blind were created, rehabilitation centers were built, and education was made accessible to those with vision loss.

During seven trips between 1946 and 1957, she visited 35 countries on five continents. She met with world leaders such as Winston Churchill, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Golda Meir.

In 1948, she was sent to Japan as America's first Goodwill Ambassador by General Douglas MacArthur. Her visit was a huge success; up to two million Japanese came out to see her and her appearance drew considerable attention to the plight of Japan's blind and disabled population.

"She will live on, one of the few, the immortal names not born to die. Her spirit will endure as long as man can read and stories can be told of the woman who showed the world there are no boundaries to courage and faith."
- Sen. Lister Hill

Wherever she traveled, she brought encouragement to millions of blind people, and many of the efforts to improve conditions for those with vision loss outside the United States can be traced directly to her visits.

Helen was famous from the age of 8 until her death in 1968. Her wide range of political, cultural, and intellectual interests and activities ensured that she knew people in all spheres of life.

She counted leading personalities of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries among her friends and acquaintances. These included Eleanor Roosevelt, Will Rogers, Albert Einstein, Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, Charlie Chaplin, John F. Kennedy, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Katharine Cornell, and Jo Davidson to name but a few.

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With Eleanor Roosevelt and Friends at Martha's Vineyard in 1954. National Archives photo

She was honored around the globe and garnered many awards. She received honorary doctoral degrees from Temple and Harvard Universities in the United States; Glasgow and Berlin Universities in Europe; Delhi University in India; and Witwatersrand University in South Africa. She also received an honorary Academy Award in 1955 as the inspiration for the documentary about her life, Helen Keller in "Her Story."

Helen suffered a stroke in 1960 and from 1961 on she lived quietly at Arcan Ridge, her home in Westport, Connecticut, one of the four main places she lived during her lifetime. (The others were Tuscumbia, Alabama; Wrentham, Massachusetts; and Forest Hills, New York).

She made her last major public appearance in 1961 in Washington, D.C. During that visit to Washington, she also called on President John F. Kennedy at the White House. President Kennedy was just one in a long line of presidents Helen had met. In her lifetime, she had met all of the presidents since Grover Cleveland.

She died on June 1, 1968, at Arcan Ridge, a few weeks short of her 88th birthday. Her ashes were placed next to her companions, Anne Sullivan Macy and Polly Thomson, in St. Joseph's Chapel of Washington Cathedral.

On October 7, 2009, a bronze statue of Helen Keller was added to the National Statuary Hall Collection. It is displayed in the United States Capitol Visitor Center and depicts Keller as a seven-year-old child standing at a water pump. The statue represents the seminal moment in Keller's life when she understood her first word, W-A-T-E-R, as signed into her hand by teacher Anne Sullivan.

The pedestal base bears a quotation in raised Latin and braille letters: "The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, they must be felt with the heart."

Senator Lister Hill of Alabama gave a eulogy during the public memorial service. He said, "She will live on, one of the few, the immortal names not born to die. Her spirit will endure as long as man can read and stories can be told of the woman who showed the world there are no boundaries to courage and faith."

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