Helen Keller: An Inspiration to Many

Can you imagine a life without being able to see or hear and not knowing how to communicate with anyone around you? That world of darkness is what Helen Keller lived in for six years. Helen Keller has been an inspiration to people ever since she turned six. From 1886-1960, she proved herself to be a creative and inspiring woman of America. She was a writer and lecturer who fought for the rights of disadvantaged people all over the world. Most importantly, she overcame her two most difficult obstacles, being blind and deaf.

Helen Keller devoted her life to improving the education and treatment of the blind, deaf, and mute and fighting for minorities as well. Helen Keller was one of the first to educate the public and make them aware of inflicted individuals’ potential. Because of her persistence and strength, she is considered a creative and unique spirit by many people of the world, especially those who can relate to her physical impairments. Helen Keller was born on June 27, 1880 in Tuscumbia, Alabama to Captain Arthur Henley Keller and Kate Adams Keller.

Helen Keller was born a healthy child. When Helen was 19 months old, she became ill with what was known as acute congestion of the brain and stomach; this is what doctors called brain fever. She was expected to die but instead this sickness left her blind, deaf, and mute. (Bowie, 1963) For many of her earlier years Helen lived in darkness with very few ways to communicate with others around her. Obviously her attempts were not always successful. When she failed to communicate she would throw fits and have outburst that would upset not only her, but her family as well.

Helens problem became a burden on the family and the family decided to seek advice from others on how to handle Helen. Because of these violent fits, she appeared to be a very unruly child, but underneath all of the tragedy was a future inspirational figure that would surprise the world with amazing and countless abilities. A large amount of Helen’s accomplishments would not have been possible if it weren’t for her mother and father. Helens mother Kate had read in the book American Notes by Charles Dickens about the work that had been done with another child, Laura Bridgman, which was deaf and blind as well (Bowie, 1963).

The family traveled to Baltimore to see a specialist where it was confirmed that Helen would never see nor hear again. The doctor did tell the family not to give up hope on Helen. He felt that there was a way to teach Helen and he suggested to the family that they seek the help of Alexander Graham Bell who had turned his work from the telephone to helping deaf children. The family did seek his advice and Bell was so fascinated by six year old Helen that he recommended that she contact Michael Anagnos at the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston to see if he could find someone to teach Helen.

Anne Sullivan, who was also a recent Perkins graduate, was suggested to be Helen’s teacher by Michael Anagnos. Helen’s greatest inspiration and life long companion, Anne Sullivan, arrived at her home in Alabama in March of 1887. Anne herself had become partially blind at the age of 5. She had been able to have surgery on her eyes while she was at the Perkins which helped her be able to read normal writing for brief periods of time. In just a couple of weeks, Helen learned that everything had a name and that she could communicate with others by using the manual alphabet.

Helen also found that she could use the manual alphabet and lip reading to prove her intelligence. The manual alphabet is a system that contains 26 hand symbols, one for each letter of the alphabet. It is used to finger spell words. The first word that she taught her was doll and the second word she taught her was cake. It was still hard for Helen to fully understand what these words meant but Anne continued to work with Helen. Anne also wanted to work on Helens behavior problem and her manners. So Anne and Helen moved into a small cottage close to the main house of the Kellers.

Anne worked on Helens table manners, taught her how to dress herself and brush and comb her hair. Things did start to improve and a bond began to grow between these two. After a month of trying to teach Helen through sign language, a “miracle” occurred, in a scene that is famous around the world, teacher and student were at a water pump, and as Anne pumped the water over Helen’s hand, she spelled out the word water in the other hand (Bowie, 1963). On the way back home from the water well Helen learned to spell some thirty different words. Helen wanted to learn to spell the word of everything she touched.

After a couple months of practice, she learned hundreds of new words. In the middle of July, just four months after Anne’s arrival, Helen was able to write her very first letter to her mother. People around the world were so amazed by her accomplishments that her first biography was written when she was only fourteen years old. After the earlier successes, Helen and her teacher both left for the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston in 1888 to provide Helen with a more formal education. In March of 1890 Helen met Mary Swift Lamson who tried to teach Helen to speak.

This attempt was unsuccessful and was probably caused by the fact that Helens vocal chords were never properly trained. In 1894 Helen and Anne met John Wright and Dr. Thomas Humason they were starting a school to teach speech to deaf people. Helen and Anne moved to New York in order for Helen to study at the Wright-Humason School for the deaf. Her speech never improved much beyond sounds that only people who knew her could understand. In 1896, Helen began her studies at Cambridge which included French, Greek, literature, mathematics, geography, and history.

Anne raised money so that her student could attend the Cambridge School for Young Ladies. She then went on to attend Radcliffe College in 1900. A neighbor by the name of Phoebe Grant became friends with Helen after she started at Radcliffe and Phoebe was attending a college near by. She says that Helen was very devoted to her learning. Phoebe says that Helen was once told her, I want to raise awareness for the handicapped all around the world. (Grant, 2001) In 1904, she graduated Cum Laude and received her Bachelor of Arts Degree.

After she graduated in 1904, she became even more involved in society. In 1906, Helen was appointed to the Massachusetts State Commission for the Blind by Gov. Curtis Guild, Jr. Her formal education my have stopped after she finished her bachelor degree but she continued to learn as much as possible throughout the years, because she continued she received more degrees. She received honorary doctoral degrees from Temple University and Harvard University and from the Universities of Glasgow, Scotland; Berlin, Germany; Delhi, India; and Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.

She was also an Honorary Fellow of the Educational Institute of Scotland (American Foundation for the Blind). On the 50th anniversary of her graduation, Radcliffe College granted her its Alumnae Achievement Award. Her Alma Mater also showed its pride in her by dedicating the Helen Keller Garden in her honor and by naming a fountain in the garden for Anne Sullivan Macy. Aside from being one of the earliest blind, deaf, and mute people to become active in society, Helen was also an author. Before she had even graduated college in 1903, Helen wrote a 7,500-word essay called Optimism.

Optimism reflected the goodness that Helen saw in life. Her first autobiography, The Story of My Life, was published in 1902 with the help of Anne Sullivan and John Macy. The Story of My Life became a world-wide best-seller and was translated into fifty languages (Helen Keller, 1999). The World I Live In was published in 1909. It was a collection of essays about Helen’s perceptions of the world around her. Also that year, she became a member of the Socialist party. She was an aggressive suffragist and preferred strong and assertive tactics.

During this time she also promoted a textile strike that took place in Lawrence, Mass. The strike was led by the Industrial Workers of the World. Being a socialist made Helen’s life more thrill and gave her life more of a purpose. Her beliefs were reflected through her work of this period. In 1910, A Song of the Stone Wall was published. This patriotic poem was 600 lines long. Also, a collection of socialist essays entitled, Out of the Dark, was published in 1913. These essays told the world Helens views on politics.

Helen became active in politics once again when the President relinquished neutrality in World War I. She was against war and supported the Industrial Workers of the World once again. Helen also began to support many other movements during this time such as the abolishment of capital punishment and child labor, the birth control movement, and also the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Her involvement with this particular group seemed to be the most controversial and it infuriated her family and friends back in her home state of Alabama.

The American Foundation for the Blind was founded in 1924 and asked Helen to help raise funds for the foundation. Helen agreed to campaign for the American Foundation for the Blind. She raised two million dollars and spread public awareness. She served as a spokesperson and ambassador for the Foundation until her death in 1968. She selected AFB as the repository for her papers and memorabilia and under the terms of her will bequeathed those materials to the Foundation. The Helen Keller Archives at AFBs national headquarters in New York City contain a wealth of photographs, papers, artifacts, and books from her library.

This archive is both a unique collection of information about an extraordinary human being and a significant American historical asset (American Foundation for the Blind). In 1929, the second volume of her autobiography, Midstream: My Later Life, was published. Helens mother, Kate, died in 1921 from an unknown illness. In 1922, Anne fell and suffered from a bad case of bronchitis. This made it impossible for Anne to be able to speak for Helen anymore. Polly Thomson, who had been hired in 1914 as a secretary, took over the speaking part for Helen.

Anne died in October 1936. Helen continued to change the world during the 1930s. She began to urge the public in Washington for legislation for the blind. She was extremely successful and got the Pratt Bill passed. The Pratt Bill provided federal funded reading services for the blind. She also became the vice-president of the Royal National Institute for the Blind in the United Kingdom in 1932. In 1935 she helped enforce Title X in the 1935 Social Security Act. This recognized the blind as a group to receive federal grant assistance.

She also spent time touring the world raising money for blind people. After WWII Helen and Polly spent time in Japan, Australia, South America, Europe and Africa raising money for the Foundation for the Overseas Blind. Helens latest book was called Teacher and it was about Anne Sullivan (Keller, 1955). She had started it but it was destroyed in a house fire while she and Polly were away. Helen began working on the book again and it was finally published in 1955. Polly had a stroke and died in 1957.

After the death of Polly, Winnie Corbally, the nurse, began taking care of Helen. Over time, Helen began to accumulate a tremendous amount of awards. Some of these awards included: Brazil’s Order of the Southern Cross, Japan’s Sacred Treasure, the Philippine’s Golden Heart, and Lebanon’s Gold Medal of Merit. The National Institute of Arts and Letters elected her membership as well. In 1952, during the Louis Braille Centennial Commemoration, (American Foundation for the Blind), Helen was made a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor.

She had finally received all the recognition and honor that she deserved. In 1964 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon Johnson the highest honor award given to a civilian. In 1965, she was elected to the Womens Hall of Fame. After 1960, Helen retired from her public speaking and traveling, because her health was beginning to decline. She had a stroke in October of 1961 which caused her to remove herself from the outside world. In 1968, Helen Keller died of atherosclerotic heart disease in her home in Westport, Connecticut.

In his eulogy at her funeral, Senator Lister Hill said of her, “She will live on, one of the few, 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. “(American Foundation for the Blind) A popular tourist attraction is the bronze plaque that was erected at Helens graveside. The plaque is written in Braille and the following is in scripted on it: Helen Keller and her beloved companion Anne Sullivan Macy are interred in the columbarium behind this chapel.

The plaque has been replaced two different times already because so many people have been to see it and touch it. Her life-long goal was to help the disadvantaged, particularly the blind and the deaf. She had a huge impact on Perkins. Her hard work and devotion helped her to overcome her handicaps and also inspired others to overcome theirs. Helen pushed for the rights of the blind. She was a benefactor to women’s suffrage and the international peace movement before World War I. She is portrayed as one of the most powerful symbols of triumph over adversity.

She changed the destiny of the blind and deaf forever. Many agencies and institutions have been named after Helen Keller as well. Helen Keller International was set-up to fight blindness in the world. Currently, Helen Keller International is one of the biggest organizations that work with the blind overseas (Helen Keller International). In 1986, the Industrial Home for the Blind was renamed to Helen Keller Services for the Blind. This agency provides special services for the blind in New York (Helen Keller Services for the Blind).

The blind now have better care, training, and employment, because of her attempts and struggles Not only did Helen help the organizations for the blind, but she helped individuals as well. Helen reached out to help a young four year old boy who, like herself, was deaf, blind and mute. His name was Tommy Stringer. Helen convinced Michael Anagnos to admit him into Perkins. She also raised a fund for the young boy. I am sure that if Helen had been born today things would have been different for her. There are so many advances with technology that she might have been able to accomplish her goal of being able to speak.

The advancements were not directly made by Helen, but without Helen and her never quit attitude she has made millions of people realize that blind people are not stupid and that their disability whatever it may be is not the end of the world. She achieved so much in her time that I think she should be an inspiration to every deaf, blind or deaf-blind person in the world as well as an inspiration to many other people in the world. She should teach us all that no matter what the obstacle is in life there is a way to overcome it.

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