Women's History Month: Helen Keller broke barriers for everyone (Videos)

When Helen Keller broke down barriers, they stayed down. She not only showed up the able bodied world, but she gave hope to other disabled folks by her example. Photo: Anne Sullivan teaching Helen Keller to read

FORT WORTH, Tx., March 24, 2012 — We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…..~ Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

From the beginning the signers of this treasonous document knew it wouldn’t grant freedom for everyone. Laying the groundwork for it was the best they could do at the time. The stroke of a pen does not change societal views or the hearts of the people.

Freedom as a concept and freedom as a reality are two separate things and not every American has enjoyed the taste of freedom without significant personal sacrifice. They would have to work for it.

In honor of Women’s History Month, I want to share the story of one of my favorite Americans. I believe she embodied and lived what true freedom is all about.

Helen Keller became deaf and blind as a result of a severe illness as an infant, leaving her enslaved in a life that only she could change.  

Born in Tuscumbia, Alabama in June 1880, Helen Adams Keller was born a healthy child. The illness that struck at nineteen months old left her blind and deaf before she learned to speak. 

Disabled Children Hidden Away

In the Nineteenth Century parents of disabled children were urged to keep them hidden at home or send them to an institution. Captain and Mrs. Keller didn’t share that sentiment.

Mrs. Keller had read Charles Dickens’ account of Laura Bridgman in his tome American Notes. Miss Bridgman was born fifty years before and also became deaf-blind as a result of illness. At two years old, she not only lost the senses of sight and hearing but also smell and taste.

In 1837, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe brought Laura to the Perkins Institute for the Blind. Through touch only, Laura  learned to read and write using tactile sign and raised letters. Through them Miss Bridgman was one of the first disabled persons to receive a broad education this way. It was also Miss Bridgman who taught Anne Sullivan sign language and made the doll with which Sullivan taught Helen Keller.   

Inspired by this account Captain and Mrs. Keller took Helen to see Dr. J. Julian Chisolm, an eye, ear, nose, and throat specialist in Baltimore. He in turn put them in touch with Alexander Graham Bell, noted for his work with the deaf as well as being the inventor of the telephone. 

With his help they hired a teacher, the twenty-year-old Anne Sullivan, who was also a graduate of the Perkins School for the Blind. At one time fully blind herself, Anne regained her sight as the result of several surgeries. “The most important day I can remember in my life,” is what Helen said about the day she met Anne Sullivan.

Try as they might Helen’s family hadn’t been able to communicate with their child. Not being able to connect with the world around her made the regular paths of learning useless. As a result the very young Helen became wild and unruly.

Anne Sullivan Rescued Helen From the Darkness

Until Anne Sullivan came on the scene, silence and darkness were all that Helen knew. Ms. Sullivan started teaching Helen by spelling letters into her hand. Starting with d-o-l-l, Anne hoped Helen would connect the objects with the letters. Soon the student could form the letters correctly and in the right order.

Heller Keller at her Radcliffe graduation

But they didn’t have meaning to her. Then one day while pumping water and spelling w-a-t-e-r into Helen’s hand, her brain suddenly made the connection. Immediately the girl patted the ground with her hands demanding to know what that was: g-r-o-u-n-d.

By that night Helen had learned thirty words. Quickly she followed up with learning the entire alphabet and to read using raised letters. Soon after that she was reading and writing.

At about ten years old Helen found out about a blind-deaf girl in Norway who had learned to speak. She wanted to do the same, and in 1894 she and Anne moved to New York so Helen could attend the Horace Mann School to learn to as well. Miss Sarah Fuller was her first speech teacher.

That year also brought her to the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf in New York City. Two years later Helen and Anne moved to Massachusetts and entered The Cambridge School for Young Ladies.

As a small child, Helen had asserted that she would go to college. In the fall of 1900 her wish came true when she entered Radcliffe College as a freshman. After four years of diligent work she received her Bachelor of Arts degree cum laude in 1904.

Helen Then Worked to Change the World

Thus Helen Keller became the first blind-deaf person to gain a Bachelor of Arts degree. And she did it with Anne Sullivan at her side signing the letters from every book and every lecture into her hand.

During school she became a published author and continued to write for the next fifty years. The Ladies Home Journal printed Helen’s first piece, The Story of My Life as a serial in the magazine. This is still the most popular of her works and today is available in more than 50 languages.

Her other 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.

By this time Helen was pretty well known. In addition to being an author and speaker, she became a social activist. With all she learned about the world, Helen was determined to use her celebrity to make the world a better and safer place. She stated:

“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.”

The rights and prospects for women back then were severely limited. Women couldn’t vote, have a bank account, own land, get a loan, with very few occupations open to women. Secretaries and teachers were almost exclusively men.

Ivy Green, Helen Keller’s home

If a woman didn’t have a father, husband, brother, or uncle who made sure she had a home, food or clothes, prostitution was just about the only way for a woman to make a living. This lifestyle of course often leads to syphilis, a leading cause of blindness.

As a result Helen became an advocate for Women’s Suffrage, Pacifism, Socialism, the Working Class, and birth control.

Helen worked tirelessly for these changes, but she never lost sight of blind and deaf-blind individuals and earned praise and honor from all over the globe. So many accolades have been awarded that they cannot all be listed  here. The Helen Keller Archives house them at the American Institute for the Blind in New York City.

They include:                                                               

Brazil’s Order of the Southern Cross

Japan’s Sacred Treasure

The Philippines’ Golden Heart

Lebanon’s Gold Medal of Merit

US Presidential Medal of Freedom

In 1933, elected to membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters 

Chevalier of the French Legion

 1954 Helen’s birthplace “Ivy Green” in Tuscumbia, Alabama was named a national shrine

In 2003, Alabama put Helen on its state quarter

In 2009, Alabama honored Helen with a bronze statue of her likeness in the National Statuary Hall Collection at the US Capitol. The likeness is of the seven year old Helen at a water pump. It is the first statue of a disabled person and of a child on permanent display at the U.S. Capitol Building.

From the time she was young until she was eighty-one years old, Helen worked to “shout from the rooftops” on behalf of the disabled. Most of all Helen showed up an able bodied world and gave hope to other disabled people by her own example of what they could accomplish.

Her Life Has Inspired Books and Movies

And of all that she dedicated herself to, she was happiest as a board member of the American Foundation of the Blind with its special service for deaf-blind people. Miss Keller served on the board until her death in June 1968.

Her friends included President Grover Cleveland, Charles Chaplin, Nehru, Katherine Cornell, Alexander Graham Bell, and Mark Twain, who declared, “The two most interesting characters of the Nineteenth Century are Napoleon and Helen Keller.”

Helen gave her blessing to two films made about her life. The premier of The Unconquered marked the occasion of “Ivy Green” being made a national shrine in 1954. The film was later renamed Helen Keller in Her Story.

The most widely known film is The Miracle Worker adapted from the play by William Gibson. It starred Anne Bancroft as Anne Sullivan and a young Patty Duke as the seven-year-old Helen.

Both films won prestigious awards from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The Unconquered earned an Oscar award for the Best Documentary in 1955. The Miracle Worker won for both Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress categories in 1962.

Two made-for-TV movies have been made of Gibson’s play. The Miracle Continues made in 1984 is another film that gives a further account of the adult life of Helen Keller.

Initially held back by disability, Helen Keller didn’t take long for to find her way once Anne Sullivan helped her open the door to a life of her own choosing. She lived her dreams and found passions within her that she cherished until the day she died — unheard of for a woman and for a disabled person in the Nineteenth Century.

When Helen Keller broke down the barriers that held her back, they stayed down so all those with disabilities could come through too.

Helen died a few weeks shy of her eighty-eighth birthday. In his eulogy of her at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C., Senator Lister Hill of Alabama is quoted as saying, 

“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.”



Read more of Claire’s work at Feed The Mind, Nourish The Soul in the Communities at The Washington Times, her blog Sustenance For The Mind, and As We Were Saying….., blog of the Greater Fort Worth Writers Group. Join her on Facebook and Twitter

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ WashingtonTimes.com. Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Claire Hickey

Claire has held a Texas Cosmetology License, Certification in Surgical Technology and has decorated cakes professionally. She believes that life is a banquet to be experienced and wants to learn and do as much as possible while she’s here. This Stay @ Home Mom has always loved to write and thanks to the Communities @ The Washington Times has got her chance. Her curiosity and writing lead her to create her column based on “garbage in garbage out” theory to provide interesting and thought provoking pieces that enrich her readers. A proud member and Treasurer for the Greater Fort Worth Writer’s Group she is currently working on her first novel.  


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