When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us. ~ Helen Keller ~
Born in Tuscumbia, Alabama in 1880, Helen Keller was only 19 months old when she lost her sight and hearing due to what the doctors called “an acute congestion of the stomach and the brain”. These days her illness probably would have been labelled Scarlet Fever or Meningitis – both which could now be treated, but back then they often had severe consequences.
Helen was an extremely intelligent child who became aware of her difference from an early age, and was so frustrated by her inability to communicate with her parents that she would frequently fly into rages, sometimes on an hourly basis.
The desire to be able to speak out became so strong, Helen even created a kind of sign language with her friend Marsha Washington – and by the time she was just seven years old, they’d already made up over 60 signs to communicate to each other.
When she was 7 years old, Keller met her miracle teacher in the person of 20 year-old Anne Mansfield Sullivan. Keller would later mark the day they met as her “soul’s birthday,” and the most significant moment in her life.
Despite a tempestuous start to their relationship — the young Keller pinched and kicked her new teacher, and knocked out one of her teeth — Sullivan, who was only 14 years older than Helen, was also visually impaired and just recently graduated from school, persevered, patiently earning the girl’s trust and affection.
Sullivan realised that the key to getting Helen to communicate was to somehow teach her a communicable concept, so she taught Keller a sort of Morse code with finger-play. Before long, Anne had taught Helen ‘finger spelling’, which allowed her to finally communicate with those around her. To do this, Anne gave Helen an object such as a doll and traced the word ‘d-o-l-l’ onto her palm.
At first Helen did not make the connection between the letters on her palm and the objects. But the famous watershed moment came when Anne took Helen to the water pump outside and while spelling “w-a-t-e-r” into Helen’s palm, let water run over the girl’s other hand. She also let her come into contact with water in a wide variety of different forms and contexts, such as water standing still in a pail, water flowing out of a pump, water in a drinking glass, raindrops, a stream, and so on. Each time, Sullivan scratched the word water on the palm of Keller’s hand.
Keller conceptually blended the different experiences with the word water by mentally bouncing back and forth and comparing the separate experiences with each other and with the word on her hand. Here we have the undiluted act of conceptual blending, the sudden synthesis of the universe of signs and the universe of things. This discovery of the essence of water initiated a fantastic revolution in Keller’s life and the lives of hundreds of others.
Once she put the facts together, there was no stopping Helen, and she stopped and touched the earth and demanded its letter name and so on and so on – by nightfall she had learned 30 words.
Basically, what both Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan did was to “think outside the box” and not allow preconceived ideas and world-views about what disabled people could and could not do, to rule Helen’s life.
Helen Keller Taught us Disability is not InAbility.
Helen was able to attend school with Anne Sullivan’s assistance, and in 1904 she became the first deaf and blind person to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree.
By the time she went to college, she had mastered several ways to communicate, including reading by touching people’s lips, braille, typing and finger spelling. She had also learned to speak, although she was always unhappy with her voice as it was hard to understand.
Helen graduated from Radcliffe and later went on to co-found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 1920. Through her spirited advocacy for the rights of women to vote and use birth control.
Keller was committed to ensuring that those who came after her would have an easier hill to climb than she had, and became a world-famous author and speaker, with a particular focus on speaking out for people with disabilities.
The relationship between teacher and pupil lasted 49 years, and that saw Keller blossom into one of America’s most inspirational figures. From her lifelong struggle to perfect her oral and non-verbal communications skills, to her array of academic and literary achievements, Keller’s life was defined by a fierce determination to not let her disabilities hold her back.
Keller and Sullivan were the subjects of a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, The Miracle Worker, by William Gibson, which opened in New York in 1959 and became a successful Hollywood film in 1962.
Widely honoured throughout the world and invited to the White House by every U.S. president from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon B. Johnson, Keller altered the world’s perception of the capacities of the handicapped. On September 14, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson conferred Keller with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award of the United States.
More than any act in her long life, Helen Keller’s courage, intelligence, and dedication combined to make her a symbol of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity.
Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experiences of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired and success achieved. ~ Helen Keller ~