Born physically normal in Tuscumbia, Alabama, Helen Keller lost her sight and hearing at the age of nineteen months to an illness now believed to have been scarlet fever. Five years later, on the advice of Alexander Graham Bell, her parents applied to the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston for a teacher, and from that school hired Anne Mansfield Sullivan. Through Sullivan’s extraordinary instruction, the little girl learned to understand and communicate with the world around her. She went on to acquire an excellent education and to become an important influence on the treatment of the blind and deaf.
Keller learned from Sullivan to read and write in Braille and to use the hand signals of the deaf-mute, which she could understand only by touch. Her later efforts to learn to speak were less successful, and in her public appearances she required the assistance of an interpreter to make herself understood. Nevertheless, her impact as educator, organizer, and fund-raiser was enormous, and she was responsible for many advances in public services to the handicapped.
With Sullivan repeating the lectures into her hand, Keller studied at schools for the deaf in Boston and New York City and graduated cum laude from Radcliffe College in 1904. Her unprecedented accomplishments in overcoming her disabilities made her a celebrity at an early age; at twelve she published an autobiographical sketch in the Youth’s Companion, and during her junior year at Radcliffe she produced her first book, The Story of My Life, still in print in over fifty languages. Keller published four other books of her personal experiences as well as a volume on religion, one on contemporary social problems, and a biography of Anne Sullivan. She also wrote numerous articles for national magazines on the prevention of blindness and the education and special problems of the blind.
In addition to her many appearances on the lecture circuit, Keller in 1918 made a movie in Hollywood, Deliverance, to dramatize the plight of the blind and during the next two years supported herself and Sullivan on the vaudeville stage. She also spoke and wrote in support of women’s rights and other liberal causes and in 1940 strongly backed the United States’ entry into World War II.
In 1924, Keller joined the staff of the newly formed American Foundation for the Blind as an adviser and fund-raiser. Her international reputation and warm personality enabled her to enlist the support of many wealthy people, and she secured large contributions from Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, and leaders of the motion picture industry. When the AFB established a branch for the overseas blind, it was named Helen Keller International. 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 honored 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. More than any act in her long life, her courage, intelligence, and dedication combined to make her a symbol of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity.