Helen Adams Keller (June 27, 1880 - June 1, 1968) was a deafblind
American author, activist and lecturer.
Helen Keller was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama. Her disabilities were
caused by a fever in February, 1882 when she was 19 months old. Her
loss of ability to communicate at such an early developmental age was
very traumatic for her and her family; as a result, she became quite
Keller was born at an estate called Ivy Green, on June 27, 1880, to
parents Captain Arthur H. Keller and Kate Adams Keller. She was not
born blind and deaf, but was actually a typical, healthy infant.
It was not until nineteen months later that she came down with an
illness that the doctors described as "an acute congestion of
the stomach and the brain" - possibly scarlet fever or meningitis.
Whatever the illness, it did not last for a particularly long time,
but it left her blind, deaf, and unable to speak. By age seven she
had invented over sixty different signs that she could use to communicate
with her family.
In 1886, her mother Kate Keller was inspired by an account in Charles
Dickens' American Notes of the successful education of another deaf/blind
child, Laura Bridgman, and travelled to a specialist doctor in Baltimore
for advice. He put her in touch with local expert Alexander Graham
Bell, who was working with deaf children at the time. Bell advised
the couple to contact the Perkins Institute for the Blind, the school
where Bridgman had been educated, which was then located in South Boston,
Boston, Massachusetts. The school delegated teacher and former student,
Anne Sullivan, herself visually impaired and then only 20 years old,
to try to open up Helen's mind. It was the beginning of a 49 year long
period of working together.
Sullivan demanded and got permission from Helen's father to isolate
the girl from the rest of the family in a little house in their garden.
Her first task was to instill discipline in the spoiled girl. Helen's
big breakthrough in communication came one day when she realized that
the motions her teacher was making on her palm, while running cool
water over her palm from a pump, symbolized the idea of "water" and
nearly exhausted Sullivan demanding the names of all the other familiar
objects in her world (including her prized doll).
Anne was able to teach Helen to think intelligibly and to speak, using
the Tadoma method: touching the lips of others as they spoke, feeling
the vibrations, and spelling of alphabetical characters in the palm
of Helen's hand. She also learned to read English, French, German,
Greek, and Latin in Braille.
In 1888, Helen attended Perkins Institute for the Blind. In 1894, Helen
and Anne moved to New York City to attend the Wright-Humason School
for the Deaf. In 1898 they returned to Massachusetts and Helen entered
The Cambridge School for Young Ladies before gaining admittance, in
1900, to Radcliffe College. In 1904 at the age of 24, Helen graduated
from Radcliffe cum laude, becoming the first deaf and blind person
to graduate from a college.
With tremendous willpower Helen went on to become a world-famous speaker
and author. She made it her own life's mission to fight for the sensorially
handicapped in the world. In 1915 she founded Helen Keller International,
a non-profit organization for preventing blindness. Helen and Anne
Sullivan traveled all over the world to over 39 countries, and made
several trips to Japan, becoming a favorite of the Japanese people.
Helen Keller met every U.S. President from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon
B. Johnson and was friends with many famous figures including Alexander
Graham Bell, Charlie Chaplin and Mark Twain.
Helen Keller was a member of the Socialist Party and actively campaigned
and wrote in support of the working classes from 1909 to 1921. She
supported Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs in each of his campaigns
for the presidency. Her political views were reinforced by visiting
workers. In her words, "I have visited sweatshops, factories,
crowded slums. If I could not see it, I could smell it".
Newspaper columnists who had praised her courage and intelligence
before she came out as a socialist now called attention to her disabilities.
The editor of the Brooklyn Eagle wrote that her "mistakes sprung
out of the manifest limitations of her development". Keller responded
to that editor, referring to having met him before he knew of her political
"At that time the compliments he paid me were so generous that
I blush to remember them. But now that I have come out for socialism
he reminds me and the public that I am blind and deaf and especially
liable to error. I must have shrunk in intelligence during the years
since I met him.Oh, ridiculous Brooklyn Eagle! Socially blind and
deaf, it defends an intolerable system, a system that is the cause
of much of the physical blindness and deafness which we are trying
Helen Keller also joined the industrial union, the Industrial Workers
of the World (IWW), in 1912 after she felt that parliamentary socialism
was "sinking in the political bog". Helen Keller wrote for
the IWW between 1916 and 1918. In "Why I Became an IWW" Helen
wrote that her motivation for activism came in part due to her concern
about blindness and other disabilities:
"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".
Helen Keller wrote glowingly of the emergence of communism during
the Russian Revolution of 1917 (See ISBN 0684818868). Her contacts
with suspected communists were frequently investigated by the FBI.
In 1920 she was one of the founders of the American Civil Liberties
Union. In the 1920s, she sent a hundred dollars to the NAACP with a
letter of support that appeared in its magazine The Crisis. In 1925
she addressed a convention of Lions Clubs International giving that
organisation a major focus for its service work which still continues
In 1960, her book Light in my Darkness was published in which she advocated
the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg. She also wrote a lengthy autobiography.
She wrote a total of eleven books, and authored numerous articles.
Helen Keller died on June 1, 1968, at the age of 87 from natural causes
at Arcan Ridge, Westport, Connecticut, more than thirty years after
the death of Anne Sullivan, and was cremated in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Her memorial service was at Washington National Cathedral.