Helen Keller: Unwavering Advocacy for the Disadvantaged

Keller with Anne Sullivan vacationing on Cape Cod in July 1888
Helen Keller, left, with Anne Sullivan vacationing on Cape Cod in July 1888 (Photo courtesy of New England Historic Genealogical Society via Wikimedia Commons)

Today is the birthday of Helen Keller, who was born in 1880.

Here are a few things you may not have known about her.

She was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama to Arthur Keller, the editor of the North Alabamian newspaper and a former Confederate Army captain, and his wife Kate Adams. Arthur Keller had two older children from a previous marriage, but Helen was the first child of her parents’ marriage. The couple had two younger children as well.

Helen Keller was born able to see and hear. At about a year-and-a-half old, she contracted what was described as “an acute congestion of the stomach and the brain,” which could have been scarlet fever or meningitis. The condition left her blind and deaf.

Keller’s mother read Charles Dickens’ account of the education of another deaf and blind woman, Laura Bridgman, some 50 years earlier. She sent Helen and her father to Baltimore for advice, where she was referred to Alexander Graham Bell, who was working with deaf children at the time. Bell told them of the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, which is where Bridgman was educated.

At the Perkins Institute, a former student, Anne Sullivan, who was also blind, was assigned to be Keller’s teacher. Sullivan used a technique where she would spell words into Keller’s hands. At the time, Keller didn’t understand that all objects had words describing them and became frustrated. About a month later, the duo had their breakthrough when Keller realized that the word being spelled on her hand symbolized water that was running over her other hand.

In 1888, Keller began school at the Perkins Institute, and later two other schools for the deaf before enrolling in 1900 at Radcliffe College, which was the sister school of the then all-male Harvard.

In 1904, she became the first deaf and blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. She eventually learned to speak and went on to give speeches and lectures throughout her life. She also learned to interpret other people’s speech by reading their lips with her hands. She could also read Braille and could read sign language with her hands. She could experience music by touching a resonant tabletop when music was played close by.

Sullivan, who married John Macy in 1905, remained with Keller as her companion for about 45 years until her health started failing in 1914.

Keller went on to be an advocate for people with disabilities, as well as a suffragette, a socialist, a pacifist and a birth control supporter. In 1912, she joined the Industrial Workers of the World, better known as at the Wobblies, advocating for workers who were blinded in workplace accidents. She also helped found the American Civil Liberties Union in 1920. She wrote 12 books, including “The Story of My Life,” which would be adapted into the play “The Miracle Worker.” She also introduced the Akita dog to the United States.

Anne Sullivan died in 1936, with Keller holding her hand. Polly Thomson and Winnie Corbally served as Keller’s companions for the rest of her life.

Keller received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964 from President Lyndon Johnson. She died in her sleep a few weeks before her 88th birthday. Her ashes are buried at Washington National Cathedral.

In 1980, Keller was depicted on an American postage stamp, marking the centennial of her birth. In 2003, she was featured as Alabama’s representative on the state quarter. In 2009, a statue of Keller was added to the National Statuary Hall Collection.

Our question: What actresses won Oscars for their portrayals of Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller in the film adaptation of “The Miracle Worker”?

Today is Canadian Multiculturalism Day, National HIV Testing Day and National Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Day.

It’s unofficially National Ragweed Day, Sunglasses Day and Please Take My Children to Work Day.

It’s the birthday of businessman and former U.S. presidential candidate Ross Perot, who is 86 today; fashion designer Vera Wang, who is 67; and film director JJ Abrams, who turns 50.

Because our topic happened before 1960, we’ll spin the wheel to pick a year at random.

This week in 1965, the top song in the U.S. was “Mr. Tambourine Man” by The Byrds.

The No. 1 movie was “Von Ryan’s Express,” while the novel “Up The Down Staircase” by Bel Kaufman topped the New York Times Bestsellers list.


Weekly take-home test

What was the name of the writing system Braille was based on?


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