“There can be no greater gift than that of giving one’s time and energy to help others without expecting anything in return.” – Nelson Mandela
Helen Keller is a historical figure that pushed to effect change in America, above all for people with disabilities. Despite being blind and deaf, she overcame obstacles, became educated, and led her life, intending to inspire others. She also stirred controversy over her political beliefs. Her life was not one of ease, but she overcame adversities with the help of a devoted teacher and a strong desire to succeed on her own terms.
A challenging childhood
Helen Keller was born in 1880 in a little town in Northern Alabama. She was a bright child who learned to walk the day she became a year old. However, she lost her sight and hearing after suffering a childhood illness with fever at 18 months of age. Her parents sought help for their child. They traveled to a famous physician who said he could do nothing to help her. Helen’s parents then consulted with Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, and he advised the parents to get a special teacher for Helen. This is how Anne Sullivan would enter Helen’s life.
A teacher who made a difference
With the help of teacher Anne Sullivan, who became a live-in tutor, Helen Keller would take command of her disabilities. Helen would learn language, beginning with the word d-o-l-l, and be taught how to read and write. Over time, Helen would acquire the skills to speak and understand other people’s speech. She did this using the Tadoma method, also known as tactile lipreading. This method involves hand positioning over the lips, cheeks, and vocal cords of the speaker to pick up the movements and vibrations produced by sounds. Today it is viewed as a difficult method to learn and use, but, for Keller and some others, the method is effective.
Degrees and a career
With Sullivan’s assistance, Helen would attend Radcliffe College of Harvard University and graduate cum laude at the age of 24. This made her the first deafblind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. Helen Keller would also grow to become a successful American author, disability rights activist, political activist, and lecturer. In 1920, she became a co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union. For over 40 years, she worked for the American Foundation for the Blind and traveled worldwide to advocate for those with vision loss, truly educating and inspiring others. Keller encouraged, not only to those facing disabilities but to many Americans facing adversities.
Though her early years were marked by dark and silent moments, Keller acquired many interests throughout her life, including a fondness for education and books. Per the 1921 educational guide Modern Americans, Helen describes some of her life pleasures as reading, outdoor sports, spending time with her pet dogs, and meeting people. Of literature, Keller shared, “Books have meant so much more to me than to many others who can get knowledge through their eyes and ears. My book friends talk to me with no awkwardness, and I am never shut away from them.” Helen also enjoyed canoeing, sailing, and walking on country roads. “Whenever it possible my dog accompanies me on a sail or a walk, I have had many dog friends. They seem to understand me, and always keep close beside me when I am alone. I love their friendly ways, and the eloquent wag of their tails.”
Turning darkness into light
Despite her cheerfulness, Helen did experience some melancholies. Modern American states, “She has had many struggles with sad thoughts when she thinks how she sits outside life’s gate and cannot enter into the light; cannot hear the music or enjoy the friendly speech of the world. When these gloomy ideas come to her mind, she remembers, ‘There is joy in self-forgetfulness,’ and tries to find her happiness in the lives of others.”
Accolades & criticism
Throughout her lifetime, Helen Keller’s humanitarian contributions were widely supported. In addition to earning numerous honorary doctoral degrees, she was the recipient of the prestigious Theodore Roosevelt Distinguished Service Medal, The Presidential Medal of Freedom, and was inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame in 1973. While history tends to remember Keller’s fight for education and vocational rights for the blind and deaf, Keller’s push for women’s rights, anti-capitalist attitude, and support of socialism are often disregarded. Though the press criticized Keller for her promotion of socialist views, her thoughts were sometimes dismissed by the press due to her disabilities. However, it is noted that the FBI monitored her due to her “radical sociopolitical views.” Thus, her role as a political activist should not be historically overlooked.
Her lifelong contributions
Helen Keller died in her sleep in 1968, shy of her 88th birthday. From a small child living in a dark and silent world – to becoming a beacon of light and support for those with disabilities – her lifetime contributions were great. Helen Keller did not let hardships in life stop her. Instead, her determination grew, and she became one of the world’s greatest advocates for the blind and deaf, still inspiring people around the globe.
Though Keller’s political views were provocative, her seeking to secure equal opportunities and rights for all people of disabilities makes her a leading figure of the Disability Rights Movement. Keller said, “Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.” Facing the daily challenges of her own disabilities gave her a unique opportunity to relate to and help others. She promoted the growth and independence of individuals with disabilities and sought solutions for the betterment of their lives, a revolutionary feat in her day, and believed that nothing could be achieved without hope and confidence.
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