Helen Keller’s name is celebrated around the world, inspiring millions through her powerful life story: a lesson in overcoming adversity. On what would be her 139th birthday, Business Optimizer takes a closer look at the amazing life of this incredible woman.
Helen Keller was a woman of “luminous intelligence and high ambition” who worked tirelessly for social justice. Her life and writings continue to inspire many generations of people around the world.
Born in 1880 in Tuscumbia, Alabama, in America’s deep South, Keller contracted an illness aged 19 months old. It left her deaf and blind; living, as she would later write in her autobiography, “at sea in a dense fog”.
But Keller didn’t hide away from the world around her; she began communicating using signing, first with the daughter of the family cook, who was of a similar age. By the time Keller was seven, she was using more than 60 signs to communicate with her family and had learnt to recognise people by the vibration of their footsteps.
Keller’s parents were keen to encourage her development of communication skills, and sought out educational institutions which might take her. Via Alexander Graham Bell, they found the school director of Perkins Institute for the Blind in Baltimore, Michael Anagnos, who put forward Anne Sullivan, a visually-impaired former student, as Keller’s instructor – thereby beginning one of the most significant relationships in Keller’s life.
Keller described the day Sullivan first arrived at her house in Alabama as her “soul’s birthday”. Sullivan immediately began to teach Keller to communicate by spelling words on her hand. After several weeks of Sullivan’s perseverance, Keller made the breakthrough discovery of linking the motions of Sullivan spelling out w-a-t-e-r on one of her hands with the cool water running over the other.
Keller described the earth-shattering wonder of that moment in her autobiography, “The living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, set it free!”
She reportedly nearly exhausted Sullivan in her eagerness to learn all the names of the other familiar objects in her world. This was only the beginning for Keller – she travelled to Baltimore and New York to learn in specialist schools before winning a place at Radcliffe College, Harvard. Here, she became the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree.
Keller was determined to communicate with people as conventionally as possible and learnt to speak. She learnt to hear people’s speech by reading their lips with her hands and became proficient at using braille.
Having gained such skills, Keller became an advocate for people with disabilities, and campaigned as a suffragette, socialist, pacifist, and for social justice. In 1911, she wrote, “The few possess the many because they possess the means of livelihood of all… the country is governed for the richest, for the corporations, the bankers, the land speculators, and for the exploiters of labour. The majority of mankind are working people. So long as their fair demands – the ownership and control of their livelihoods – are set at naught, we can have neither men’s rights nor women’s rights.”
In 1915, she founded the Helen Keller International organisation with George A. Kessler to research vision, health and nutrition. Then, in 1920, she helped to found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
However, Keller’s radicalism wasn’t met with universal approval; Rockefeller-owned press refused to print her articles. Keller protested until they were published.
Worse, some right-wing commentators tried to use Keller’s disabilities against her and to delegitimise her views. In response to harsh criticism from the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, Keller responded, “the compliments he [once] paid me were so generous that I blush to remember them. But not that I have come out for socialism he reminds me and the public that I am blind and deaf and especially liable to error. Oh, ridiculous Brooklyn Eagle! Socially blind and deaf, it defends an intolerable system.”
Keller repeatedly spoke of the joy life gave her; thankful for the faculties and abilities that she did possess – not least her curiosity and imagination. She emphasised the joy of service to others and the happiness that comes from achievement. Her own qualities of gratitude, selflessness, ambition and service have had a profound impact on our understanding of disability and hardship and have inspired many.
Kathy Spahn, President of Helen Keller International, says Keller’s story is the epitome of the American dream: earnt by “living bravely to reach one’s highest ability while helping others to reach theirs.”
Spahn goes on to argue, “for me, doing justice to the life and legacy of Helen Keller means refusing to accept injustice, suffering, or barriers to human potential… Helen Keller not only triggered a watershed change for underrepresented groups of people, she literally redefined our understanding of human potential.”