Helen Keller is an iconic name that finds a starry place in history. There is possibly no one on this earth who has never heard of her name even for once in their life. Keller was the first deaf and blind woman who had created waves as a writer, political activist, and lecturer. She is regarded as an extremely powerful example of dynamism and advocacy for people with disabilities. Keller is remembered for her autobiography ‘The Story of My Life’ and other brilliant essay compilations like ‘Out of the Dark’. Keller had written various books and essays on socialist and spiritual topics. Generations after generations have known Keller so well through various film, television series and documentary adaptations produced, depicting the story of her life. Keller had been the guiding light of the American Foundation for the Blind for which she had raised funds. Keller had won many posthumous honours like being named in hospitals and physically challenged foundations. After she died she was awarded with Alabama’s The 50 State Quarters program, listed in Gallup's Most Widely Admired People of the 20th Century and a bronze statue of her was added to the National Statuary Hall Collection. Keller was the first deaf and blind woman who completed her Bachelor of Arts degree. Keller’s name will remain in the memories of future generations and pages of history.
Helen Keller Childhood
Helen Keller was born as Helen Adams Keller on 27 June 1880, in Tuscumbia, Alabama, USA. Keller’s family lived in a land and home which was owned and built by Helen’s grandfather. Helen was born to father Arthur H. Keller who was attached as an editor for the Tuscumbia “North Alabamian” and had served as a captain for the Confederate Army and mother Kate Adams who was the daughter of Charles Adams who had fought for the Confederate Army during the American Civil War, earning the rank of brigadier-general.
Helen’s father’s family origin traced back to Swiss ancestor Casper Keller. According to reports one of Helen’s Swiss ancestors had been the first teacher for the deaf in Zurich. Helen had mentioned this coincidence in her first autobiography, stating “that there is no king who has not had a slave among his ancestors, and no slave who has not had a king among his”.
Helen had not been born as a deaf and blind child but had been affected by an illness which her doctors stated as “an acute congestion of the stomach and the brain” which now is believed to have been either scarlet fever or meningitis. The illness did not remain with her for long but brought in deafness and blindness in her. As a child Helen could only communicate with Martha Washington who was Helen’s family cook’s daughter. Martha understood much of Helen’s signs. Helen used 60 of her home signs while communicating with her family. In 1886 Helen was sent by her mother while being accompanied by her father to seek the help of Dr. J. Julian Chisolm, an eye, ear, nose, and throat specialist in Baltimore, for advice. This was the first time that Helen was sent for a professional learning process and her mother had taken this step after getting inspired by inspired by an account in Charles Dickens' “American Notes” of the successful education of another deaf and blind woman, Laura Bridgman. Dr. J. Julian Chisolm referred Helen and her father to Alexander Graham Bell, who was then working with deaf children at the time. Bell further made Helen and her family go to Perkins Institute for the Blind where Laura Bridgman had received her formal education. Helen had found her instructor in Perkins’ former student Anne Sullivan (who was visually impaired for 20 years) who was personally referred by Michael Anaganos, Perkins’ director.
Anne Sullivan started teaching Helen by arriving at Helen’s home in March 1887. Anne initially taught Helen how to communicate by spelling words through her hands. Anne gave a clear picture of all the words and Helen learnt the symbolic ideas of water, mug and all other things. Keller had a protruding left eye which we get to know from most of her profile photographs. Both of Keller’s eyes were replaced when she turned into an adult, with glass replicas.
From May 1888 Helen started attending Perkins Institute for the Blind. In 1894, Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan moved to New York to get special education from the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf and educate under Sarah Fuller at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf. In 1896 Keller and Sullivan moved back to Massachusetts and Helen entered The Cambridge School for Young Ladies. In 1900 Helen was admitted to Radcliffe College, where she lived in Briggs Hall, South House. Mark Twain greatly admired Helen Keller for her efforts and helped her greatly in introducing her to Standard Oil magnate Henry Huttleston Rogers, who along with his wife funded Helen’s education. In 1904 Keller received her graduation from Radcliffe College at the age of 24. With this Helen became the first deaf and blind person ever to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree.
Helen had remained in close alliance with the Austrian philosopher and pedagogue Wilhelm Jerusalem who was the first person to assess and discover Helen’s immense literary talent. Anne Sullivan had remained Helen’s companion for several years. Anne married John Macy in 1905. Her health declined somewhere around 1914.
Keller recruited Polly Thompson to keep her house. Thompson was a young Scottish woman who had no prior experience dealing with deaf or blind people but she managed well and became a secretary to Helen. Polly always accompanied Helen and became a constant companion in the later years.
Helen Keller became a world renowned writer and a magnificent orator. She is remembered even today for her tremendous efforts and contributions in advocating the cause of people with disabilities and many other social causes. Helen was outright in rejecting Woodrow Wilson’s policies as she was a notable radical socialist. Helen played an integral role in promoting birth control, suffrage and was a pacifist in ideas.
Keller was a socialist and believed in radical changes than parliamentary socialism which according to her was “sinking in the political bog”. In 1912 Keller joined the Industrial Workers of the World (known as the IWW or the Wobblies).
In 1915 she found the Helen Keller International (HKI) organization along with George Kessler which devoted its work and research in the areas of vision, health and nutrition. In 1920 Helen greatly helped founding the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Keller was accompanied by Sullivan in 39 foreign country trips.
Together Helen and Sullivan visited Japan where Helen became a favourite of the Japanese people. During her travels and political visits Keller met several American Presidents from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon B. Johnson and became friends with many famous individuals like Alexander Graham Bell, Charlie Chaplin and Mark Twain.
Helen Keller was greatly interested in activism because of her extreme concern for blindness and other disabilities. She regularly wrote for IWW from 1916 to 1918. She stated in one of her writings on social activism, “I was appointed on a commission to investigate the conditions of the blind. For the first time I, who had thought blindness a misfortune beyond human control, found that too much of it was traceable to wrong industrial conditions, often caused by the selfishness and greed of employers. And the social evil contributed its share. I found that poverty drove women to a life of shame that ended in blindness”.
Keller remained a Socialist Party member for which she actively campaigned and wrote many pieces in support of the working class from 1909 to 1921. Keller supported Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs in all of her presidential campaigns.
Helen had written 12 books which were all published besides writing various articles. One of the earliest known Helen’s written piece was when she was eleven years old The Frost King (1891). There had been growing allegations that Helen had copied the book from “The Frost Fairies” by Margaret Canby. The act of plagiarism was condemned and Helen’s work was thoroughly investigated. It was found that Keller may have experienced cryptomnesia and had forgotten the story written by Canby read out to her but had subconsciously remembered the storyline. Keller was 22 years old when her autobiography, “The Story of My Life” was published in 1903 which received help from Sullivan and Sullivan's husband, John Macy. In 1908 Keller wrote “The World I Live In” which talked about her feelings of the world she felt living inside. In 1913 a series of essays on socialism, “Out of the Dark” was published. In 1927 Keller’s spiritual autobiography “My Religion” was published.
Final Years and Death
Helen Keller was attacked by several strokes in 1961. She was confined to her home in the final years of her life. On September 14, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded her with the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom which is regarded as one of the United States' highest two civilian honours. Keller died in her sleep on 1 June 1968 at her home, Arcan Ridge located in Easton, Connecticut.
Film and Television Adaptations
Keller’s life and times have been made into many television series, films and documentaries. She herself appeared in a silent film, “Deliverance” in 1919 which told the story of her life in a melodramatic and allegorical style. “The Miracle Worker” is a cycle of dramatic works heavily derived from her autobiography, “The Story of My Life”. Each of the various dramas describe the relationship between Keller and Sullivan, depicting the teacher’s leading role in calming Keller from a state of almost feral wildness and making her take up education, activism, and intellectual celebrity. The common title of the cycle echoes Mark Twain's description of Sullivan as a "miracle worker." Its first realization was the 1957 “Playhouse 90” teleplay of that title by William Gibson. Gibson adapted it for a Broadway production in 1959 and producing an Oscar-winning feature film in 1962 which starred Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. It was remade for television in 1979 and 2000. In 1984, Helen Keller's life story was produced into a TV movie called “The Miracle Continues”. The Hindi movie, “Black” which came out in 2005 and directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali was hugely based on Keller’s life.
Posthumous Awards and Honours
In 1999 Keller’s name got listed into Gallup's Most Widely Admired People of the 20th Century. Keller lends her name to the Helen Keller Hospital in Sheffield, Alabama which was dedicated to her. In 2003, Alabama honoured Helen, who was considered as Alabama’s native daughter, on its “state quarter”. There are streets in Getafe, Spain and Lod, Israel which have been named after Helen Keller. On October 7, 2009, a bronze statue of Helen Keller was added to the National Statuary Hall Collection.