Helen Keller was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama on June 27, 1880. Her infancy was normal until, at a year and a half of age, she contracted meningitis. The disease rendered her both deaf and blind. The next years were hellish for her family, as they knew of no way to reach through her double disabilities to communicate with her. As for herself, she was imprisoned in her body, and lonely, unable to make her needs and desires known.
Alexander Graham Bell was not just the inventor of the telephone. He was also a teacher of the deaf. Keller’s family contacted him and when he met her he sensed her innate intelligence. He suggested that the family hire a young woman named Anne Sullivan to tutor the young Helen. The family was well off and able to afford this tutoring for their child, so they contacted Miss Sullivan.
Anne Sullivan was herself partially blind. She had studied at the Perkin’s Institute for the Deaf and Blind in Boston, and at the age of 21 hired on to live with the Keller family and work with Helen. Sullivan devised a method of making hand signs that Keller could understand by pressing her hand, making the signs, into Keller’s palm. By this method the young girl was able to learn to communicate brilliantly. By her eighth birthday she was well known, and her fame would grow throughout her life. Mark Twain befriended her and called her The Miracle Worker.
Helen Keller went to Ratcliffe College, and by means of Sullivan spelling out lectures into her palms, she obtained a degree. During her years at school, encouraged by the Ladies’ Home Journal magazine, she wrote her autobiography, entitled, The Story Of My Life, in order to answer the endless curiosity of people across the globe. She even learned to speak by pressing her fingers against Sullivan’s throat and imitating the vibrations. She was the first deaf and blind person to graduate from college, and she did so Cum Laude.
Throughout her life she would meet many famous people and have many experiences. She met with every President who served in her lifetime. She even had the experience of enjoying music, thanks to the violin and talent of Jascha Heifetz, a prominent 20th century violinist. By feeling the violin’s vibrations she could tell which composer’s music was being played. She also danced in Martha Graham’s studio by feeling the vibrations of the music.
She spent much of her life on the lecture circuit with her teacher and companion, Anne Sullivan. Sullivan briefly married, but divorced and return to work with Keller. Keller became a champion for the blind, published numerous books throughout her lifetime, and participated in speaking out against such things as child labor and capital punishment.
The Gold Medal of the National Institute of Social Sciences was conferred upon her in 1952. In 1953 she was honored at the Sorbonne in Paris, France’s highest honor. In 1955 she won an Academy Award for her documentary, “Helen Keller In Her Story” and received an honorary degree from Harvard. In 1964 she was given the United States’ highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Helen Keller died at the age of eighty-eight on June 1, 1968. Her legacy lives on as Foundations and Institutes are formed to continue the work of putting an end to blindness. The Helen Keller Prize is awarded to those who focus the attention of the public on the matter of vision research