Born in Alabama in 1880, Helen Keller became seriously ill at 19 months. The physician described her ailment as “brain fever”, but it was likely to have been meningitis or scarlet fever. In any event, it left her both deaf and blind.
Keller’s inability to communicate was a cause of near-constant frustration – until, that was, her family sought advice from a school for the blind in Boston. The school’s director recommended that one of their graduates be assigned to work with the six-year-old. That graduate, Anne Sullivan, would be a constant associate of Keller’s for the next 49 years.
The pair successfully developed a method of communication based around spelling words out on the girl’s hand. Sullivan was trying to teach her to communicate, but was making little progress. Then one day, an epiphany – Anne took Helen to the water pump and ran the cool liquid over her hand, while writing the word in the child’s opposite palm. Helen finally understood what her teacher had been trying to get across, a moment that would forever change what it meant to be hearing and visually impaired.
Anne would get Helen to touch, smell or taste different items, and would trace the words on her palm. Initially, Helen saw these as games, nothing more – until her breakthrough with the water pump. By the end of that day, she had picked up 30 words.
Keller later attended another Boston institution, this time a school for the deaf. Armed with speech, Braille, finger-spelling and touch-lip reading, Keller enrolled at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. With Sullivan as her personal assistant, she graduated in 1904.
Keller embarked on a series of lectures to tell her story and inspire those with disabilities, working greatly with the American Federation for the Blind. She also became politically astute, joining the Socialist Party. This provoked criticism, with one editorial describing her views as “mistakes sprung out of the manifest limitations of her development”.
Her activism didn’t wane, though. She continued to be a renowned speaker worldwide, advocating for the equality of disabled people, women and all races, as well as causes such as socialism and pacifism. Her visits to veterans’ hospitals during World War II meant that she inspired the victims of horrific injuries, and in turn, was inspired by the bravery she encountered.
Keller visited dozens of countries and in 1955, aged 75, she trekked across Asia, covering 40,000 miles in five months. “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision,” Keller said. She had vision in abundance.
Having met every president from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon B Johnson, Helen Keller received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from the latter, and died peacefully in 1968. Her ashes were placed next to her great friend and companion, the miracle worker Anne Sullivan.