When we think of Helen Keller, the image that often comes to mind is that of a remarkable woman who overcame the daunting challenges of being both deaf and blind. Her story is nothing short of extraordinary, but there’s more to it than what meets the eye. Contrary to the common myth, Helen Keller wasn’t born deaf and blind. Her journey to becoming one of the most inspirational figures in history is a testament to the indomitable human spirit and the power of education and determination.
The myth that Helen Keller was born deaf and blind is a misconception that needs to be corrected. In reality, Helen entered this world with the ability to see and hear without any noticeable impairments. It wasn’t until she was around one and a half years old that her life took a dramatic turn. At that young age, she fell ill with symptoms that are still shrouded in mystery. While it’s not definitively known whether it was scarlet fever or meningitis that afflicted her, the illness manifested as an acute congestion affecting her stomach and brain. Tragically, after recovering from the sickness, Helen found herself in a world of silence and darkness, regardless of her surroundings.
This sudden and profound loss of sight and hearing was a profound challenge for Helen, but it did not define her life. Instead, it ignited a remarkable journey of perseverance, learning, and triumph that continues to inspire people around the world.
Another common misconception about Helen Keller is that she had no means of communication with her family until her teacher, Anne Sullivan, arrived when she was seven years old. However, the reality is quite different. Helen had developed a limited form of communication using approximately sixty “house signs.” These signs allowed her to communicate primarily with Martha Washington, the child of the Keller family’s cook and her playmate. Although these signs were rudimentary, they provided a crucial means of connection for Helen during her early years.
The turning point in Helen Keller’s life came when her mother, inspired by Charles Dickens’ “American Notes,” embarked on a quest to find a teacher for her daughter. This decision eventually led her to Alexander Graham Bell, the renowned inventor who was working as a teacher for deaf children at the time, given his personal connection to the world of deafness.
Bell suggested that Helen’s parents seek assistance from the Perkins Institute for the Blind, located in South Boston. It was there that fate intervened, bringing Anne Sullivan into Helen’s life. Anne, who was just twenty years old and visually impaired herself, was tasked with becoming Helen’s instructor, governess, and constant companion. Little did they know that this connection would remain unchanged for nearly half a century.
The Communication Trailblazer
Despite the immense challenges of being both deaf and blind, Helen Keller’s determination knew no bounds. She not only learned how to communicate effectively but also became proficient in speaking and reading lips by touching people’s lips as they spoke. Her ability to communicate was instrumental in her adult life, where she delivered numerous lectures and speeches, becoming a renowned author in the process.
Helen Keller’s family history is a tapestry woven with interesting threads. Her grandfather served as a Confederate army captain, and her paternal grandmother was Robert E. Lee’s second cousin. On her mother’s side, her grandfather, Charles Adams, held the rank of brigadier general in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. In addition, Helen had an ancestor from Zurich, Switzerland, who was the first person in Zurich to teach deaf individuals. Her lineage was a rich tapestry of diverse experiences and backgrounds.
The Transformational Surgery
One intriguing aspect of Helen Keller’s life was her decision to undergo a unique surgery at the age of thirty. She had her eyes surgically removed and replaced with artificial eyes made of glass. The primary motivation behind this cosmetic procedure was to address the pronounced bulging of one of her eyes, which had a significant impact on her appearance. As a result of this surgery, most of the photographs taken of Helen before the operation were carefully angled to conceal her protruding eye.
The First Lesson and a Lifelong Bond
Anne Sullivan’s first lesson to Helen Keller was the word “dollmaker.” Helen received a doll when Anne arrived at the Keller household in 1887. This marked the beginning of a transformative learning journey. Helen’s initial progress was slow, as she struggled to grasp concepts such as naming objects. However, after about a month, a breakthrough occurred when she realized that the tracings on her hand conveyed the names of the objects she held. From that moment on, Helen became an insatiable learner, eager to discover the names of everything around her.
The bond between Helen and Anne was not just that of teacher and student; it was a deep and enduring friendship that lasted for decades. Anne Sullivan was not only Helen’s teacher but also her constant companion and mentor, guiding her through a world that was initially closed off to her.
Mark Twain’s Influence
Mark Twain, the celebrated American author, played a significant role in Helen Keller’s life. The two first met when Helen was just sixteen years old, and this encounter would have a profound impact on her future. Mark Twain introduced her to Henry Huttleston Rogers, a highly successful self-made businessman who had amassed his fortune during the oil boom. Twain’s encouragement led Rogers to provide financial support for Helen’s education, allowing her to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree from Radcliffe College and becoming the first deaf-blind person to achieve this milestone. Rogers also provided her with a monthly stipend, ensuring her financial security.
Henry Huttleston Rogers was not only a friend of Mark Twain but also had a close relationship with Booker T. Washington, a prominent African American educator and leader. Their friendship began when Rogers attended a speech by Washington in Madison Square Garden in 1894. This friendship led to Rogers offering substantial financial support to approximately sixty-five schools serving African Americans and contributing significantly to the Tuskegee and Hampton Institutes.
Helen Keller’s Circle of Influence
Helen Keller’s life was a tapestry of influential relationships. She not only corresponded with Mark Twain but also had the privilege of meeting every President of the United States from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon B. Johnson. Her circle of influence extended to luminaries like Charlie Chaplin and Alexander Graham Bell. In addition to these notable figures, she engaged in regular correspondence with the Austrian philosopher Wilhelm Jerusalem, who wholeheartedly supported her writing abilities.
During her lifetime, Helen Keller authored a total of twelve books and numerous articles spanning a wide range of subjects. Remarkably, her first conscious attempt at storytelling occurred when she was just eleven years old. The story she wrote, “The Frost King,” bore a striking resemblance to Margaret Canby’s “The Frost Fairies.” This early foray into writing foreshadowed her future as a prolific and influential author.
In 1961, Helen Keller faced a series of strokes that marked the beginning of the end of her public interactions. Her passing occurred on the night of June 1, 1968. Her ashes were laid to rest alongside her two closest friends and lifelong companions: her teacher, Anne Sullivan, and her later friend and caretaker, Polly Thompson.
Honors and Legacy
Helen Keller’s contributions and indomitable spirit were recognized by President Lyndon B. Johnson, who awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom four years before her passing. Additionally, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame one year after her election. Her legacy continues to inspire countless individuals worldwide, serving as a testament to the power of determination, education, and the human spirit.
The myth that Helen Keller was born deaf and blind has been dispelled, revealing a life marked by resilience, accomplishment, and enduring friendships. Her remarkable journey from isolation and darkness to a world of communication, education, and advocacy stands as a beacon of hope and inspiration for generations to come. Helen Keller’s story teaches us that no challenge is insurmountable, and with determination and support, we can overcome even the most profound obstacles life may present.
While Helen Keller’s story is undoubtedly unique, she is not the only deaf-blind individual who has left a mark on history. Let’s take a moment to explore the lives of other remarkable individuals who shared similar challenges and triumphs.
The Teacher Who Never Stopped Learning
Sanzan Tani, like Helen Keller, faced the daunting reality of becoming fully deaf and blind as an adult. However, he defied the odds and continued to function as a teacher. His story serves as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the power of education.
Born almost half a century before Helen Keller, Laura Bridgman was the first American child to be fully educated despite being blind and deaf. Her remarkable journey paved the way for future generations of individuals with sensory impairments.
Robert Smithdas made history by becoming the first deaf-blind person to earn a Master’s degree, specializing in vocational guidance and the rehabilitation of the handicapped. His work has had a lasting impact on the lives of countless individuals with disabilities.
Heinrich Landesmann, an Austrian poet and philosopher, left a lasting legacy by developing a form of tactile signing that bears his name. His contributions to communication for the deaf-blind community continue to be invaluable.
Robert Smithdas, who retired in 2008 at the age of 83, is living proof of the power of determination and resilience. His remarkable journey is made even more unique by the fact that his wife, Michelle, is also deaf-blind. The question of how they navigate their daily lives, recognizing each other within their home, is an intriguing testament to the human capacity for adaptation and innovation. Vibrations in the floor or other ingenious methods may play a role in their remarkable ability to connect and communicate.
Laura Bridgman’s story predates Helen Keller’s by several decades, but her impact on the field of education for the deaf-blind is immeasurable. She was born with the ability to hear and see, but scarlet fever, a cruel and indiscriminate illness, took those senses from her at the tender age of two. Despite the devastating loss of her senses of sight and hearing, Laura’s sense of determination and resilience shone through.
Laura’s family friend, Samuel Gridley Howe, took it upon himself to teach Laura to communicate. Although he himself was not equipped to teach a language to a deaf-blind child, his dedication and innovative methods ultimately proved successful. Laura Bridgman’s journey to language and communication was groundbreaking, as she became the first American child to be fully educated despite being blind and deaf.
Perkins School for the Blind
Established in 1829, the Perkins School for the Blind holds the distinction of being the oldest school in the United States dedicated to the education of blind individuals. The school’s name pays homage to one of its founders, a wealthy shipping businessman with sight challenges.
The life of Helen Keller is not just a story of overcoming adversity; it is a testament to the power of education, determination, and the indomitable human spirit. Her journey from isolation and darkness to a world of communication, learning, and advocacy is an inspiration to us all. Moreover, Helen’s story serves as a reminder that the human capacity for adaptation and innovation knows no bounds.
As we reflect on Helen Keller’s remarkable life, we are also reminded of the other extraordinary individuals who have faced similar challenges and left their own indelible marks on history. From Sanzan Tani’s dedication to teaching to Laura Bridgman’s pioneering achievements, Robert Smithdas’ impact on rehabilitation, and Heinrich Landesmann’s contributions to tactile signing, each of these individuals has added to the rich tapestry of the human experience.
Helen Keller’s legacy lives on, not only in her own story but also in the stories of those who followed in her footsteps. Their journeys remind us that no obstacle is insurmountable, and that with determination, support, and innovation, we can overcome the greatest challenges life presents. Helen Keller’s life is a testament to the limitless potential of the human spirit, and her story will continue to inspire generations to come.