An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Helen Keller—Against All Odds

Sep 24, 2018 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1. In reviewing some of the most famous and greatest American women, we  need to look at someone who overcame almost insurmountable odds: Helen Keller.  While there have been movies about her, we need to look at her historically. When and where was she born?

Helen Keller was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama, on June 27, 1880. Her childhood started normally enough, but at the age of 19 months she suddenly began suffering from an affliction (modern medical experts suspect that she may have developed either meningitis or scarlet fever) that robbed her of both her hearing and her vision. These conditions, in turn, hindered her in developing the ability to speak. No one at the time could therefore hold out much hope that Helen Keller would someday lead a productive and fruitful life.

2. How was she at first educated due to her handicaps?  What was the initial breakthrough? And briefly, what role did Anne Sullivan play?

Although for all intents and purposes deaf, mute, and blind, Helen did not lack intelligence, and soon she attempted to indicate her needs to her family through hand gestures. As it turned out, Helen’s parents had in their employ a woman whose daughter proved able to interpret Helen’s gestures, and soon Helen and her family could communicate in this rudimentary fashion.

A few years later, Helen’s mother read a book that contained an account of how an American woman had overcome the loss of hearing and vision to attain literacy, Hoping that her daughter could have similar success, she and her husband contacted a highly respected doctor in Baltimore named J. Julian Chisolm. Knowing of the pioneering work done with deaf children by Alexander Graham Bell, Chisolm suggested that they check with him. In turn, Bell recommended that the Kellers see if they could enroll their daughter in the Perkins Institute for the Blind in South Boston.

Rather than have her attend that facility, the director of the Perkins Institute suggested that the Kellers should hire one of his recent graduates to move to Alabama and work with Helen Keller directly. Finding the suggestion a logical one, the Kellers then engaged 20-year-old Anne Sullivan as Helen’s instructor in March of 1887.

Initially, Sullivan attempted to utilize a method of instruction that she had learned at the Perkins Institute, but soon modified her approach when Helen Keller proved resistant. Eventually, she hit on a strategy of placing objects into Helen’s hands and then spelling the objects. As is famously depicted in the movie “The Miracle Worker,” the breakthrough moment came when Anne Sullivan poured water into Helen’s hands and then spelled the word.

From that point on, Helen quickly learned other words. Believing that Helen had the intellectual capacity to master more complex tasks, Anne recommended to the Kellers that they allow their daughter to attend the Perkins Institute. They agreed, and in 1888 Helen began school there, with Anne Sullivan as her personal instructor.

Eventually, she gained admittance to Radcliffe College, and graduated from that institution in 1904. In the process, she became the first deaf and blind student to receive a Bachelor of Arts degree. Both Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan would go forward from that point in time to help inspire others to overcome disabilities and reach their fullest potential.

3. At what point did she begin to make major contributions, and what were they?

Helen Keller had first come to national attention in 1891, when she wrote a book titled The Frost King. In 1903, while still in college, she released an autobiography titled The Story of My Life. With Americans now aware of her remarkable story, she then began to work to promote programs that helped deaf and blind people become productive members of society.

Many people today have an awareness of her contributions in this regard, but few know that Keller also embraced a number of other causes at the same time. She abhorred war as an instrument of foreign policy, for example, and her belief led her to oppose America’s entry into World War I.

A firm believer in social equality, she became a member of the Socialist Part in 1911. In a similar fashion, she advocated for women to receive the right to vote.

Finally, she maintained that women should have access to information about birth control—a radical view at that time. Many biographies of Helen Keller gloss over, or entirely omit, these stances that she took, but it is important to consider the entirety of her work to properly place her in context.

4. How was she regarded during her time frame?

As previously noted, Helen Keller held views on issue that did not always place her within the mainstream of American society. For that reason, she occasionally found that newspapers or magazines refused to publicize her activities. Keller always met the critics forthrightly, asking that the publications give her the same coverage that they did when she talked about issues involving the deaf and blind. Although she was not always successful in this regard, she gained a great deal of respect for her forthright stands.

5. During her later life, what did she work on and what did she accomplish?

Although her written works helped to influence people, Helen Keller recognized that speeches could carry an even greater weight. For that reason, she worked tirelessly to learn how to speak, and gradually developed a gift for oratory. Until she suffered a stroke in 1961, she remained active on the lecture circuit. By that time, many causes that she had embraced had either come to fruition or faded into obscurity, so by the time her speaking career came to an end she focused her talks almost exclusively on issues involving the deaf and the blind.

6. What have we neglected to ask?

As we have repeatedly seen in this series, no one achieves absolute perfection in life. Such is the case with Helen Keller. For her, the fact that she embraced the concept of eugenics strikes most modern day readers as repugnant. But considering the example that she set of overcoming incredible adversity to become a valuable asset to her nation should make us proud to include her in the pantheon of American female heroes.

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