Helen Adams Keller was born on June 27, 1880, on a farm near Tuscumbia, Alabama. A normal infant, she was stricken with an illness at 19 months, probably scarlet fever, which left her blind and deaf. For the next four years, she lived at home, a mute and unruly child. Special education for the blind and deaf was just beginning at the time, and it was not until after Helen’s sixth birthday that her parents had her examined by an eye physician interested in the blind. He referred the Kellers to Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone and a pioneer in teaching speech to the deaf. Bell examined Helen and arranged to have a teacher sent for her from the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston.
The teacher, 20-year-old Anne Sullivan, was partially blind. At Perkins, she had been instructed how to teach a blind and deaf student to communicate using a hand alphabet signaled by touch into the student’s palm. Sullivan arrived in Tuscumbia in March 1887 and immediately set about teaching this form of sign language to Helen. Although she had no knowledge of written language and only the haziest recollection of spoken language, Helen learned her first word within days: “water.” Keller later described the experience: “I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free.”
Under Sullivan’s dedicated guidance, Keller learned at a staggering rate. By April, her vocabulary was growing by more than a dozen words a day, and in May she began to read and arrange sentences using raised words on cardboard. By the end of the month, she was reading complete stories. One year later, the seven-year-old Keller made her first visit to the Perkins Institution, where she learned to read Braille. She spent several winters there and in 1890 was taught to speak by Sarah Fuller of the Horace Mann School for the Deaf. Keller learned to imitate the position of Fuller’s lips and tongue in speech, and how to lip-read by placing her fingers on the lips and throat of the speaker. In speaking, she usually required an interpreter, such as Sullivan, who was familiar with her sounds and could translate.
When she was 14, Keller entered the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf in New York City. Two years later, with Sullivan at her side and spelling into her hand, she enrolled at the Cambridge School for Young Ladies in Massachusetts. In 1900, she was accepted into Radcliffe, a prestigious women’s college in Cambridge with classes taught by Harvard University faculty. She was a determined and brilliant student, and while still at Radcliffe her first autobiography, The Story of My Life, was published serially in The Ladies Home Journal and then as a book. In 1904, she graduated cum laude from Radcliffe.
Keller became an accomplished writer, publishing, among other books, The World I Live In (1908), Out of the Dark (1913), My Religion (1927), Helen Keller’s Journal (1938), and Teacher (1955). In 1913, she began lecturing, with the aid of an interpreter, primarily on behalf of the American Foundation for the Blind. Her lecture tours took her several times around the world, and she did much to remove the stigmas and ignorance surrounding sight and hearing disorders, which historically had often resulted in the committal of the blind and deaf to asylums. Helen Keller was also outspoken in other areas and supported socialism all her life. For her work on behalf of the blind and the deaf, she was widely honored and in 1964 was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
“My life has been happy because I have had wonderful friends and plenty of interesting work to do,” Helen Keller once wrote, adding, “I seldom think about my limitations, and they never make me sad. Perhaps there is just a touch of yearning at times, but it is vague, like a breeze among flowers. The wind passes, and the flowers are content.”