Professor Donald Elder: 50 Greatest Americans–Helen Keller

Oct 21, 2015 by

helen keller
An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: 50 Greatest Americans–Helen Keller

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) One of our greatest Americans overcame incredible odds and difficulties in her life: Helen Keller. What do we know about her early life and challenges?

Helen Keller was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama on June 27, 1880. By all accounts, she was a normal, healthy infant for her first 19 months. Unfortunately, at that time she came down with an affliction (most likely meningitis, or possibly scarlet fever). This illness cost her both her sight and her hearing. Initially unable to communicate with anyone, Keller soon developed a number of hand signals that the daughter of the family cook was able to decipher. Eventually, Keller was able to make 60 distinct signs to convey her sentiments.

There things might have stood for Keller, had it not been for her mother’s intervention. Learning that a young lady named Laura Bridgman had overcome similar disabilities, Keller’s mother had her sent to a famous eye, ear, nose, and throat specialist by the name of Julian Chisolm for treatment. In turn, Chisolm recommended that Keller see Alexander Graham Bell. Best known as the inventor of the telephone, Bell had also done path-breaking work in speech pathology. When the Kellers spoke to him, Bell suggested that they go to the Perkins Institute for the Blind for treatment, as this was the institution that had helped Laura Bridgman.

After a consultation, the head of the Perkins Institute asked one of the school’s former students to instruct Helen Keller. The person he chose was Anne Sullivan, a person who would have a remarkable impact on Keller.

2) Education surely was difficult until Anne Sullivan came along. What do we know about her ability to learn and communicate?

The person we know as Anne Sullivan was actually named Johanna Sullivan, but it appears that from infancy onward she was known as Anne. At the age of eight, Sullivan came down with trachoma. This is a bacterial disease that affects the eyes, and it left her virtually blind. To make matters worse, Sullivan lost her mother and was abandoned by her father. Raised in an almshouse in Tewksbury, Massachusetts, Sullivan received no formal education. She briefly found work as a housemaid, but soon lost her position and returned to the almshouse.
Seemingly destined for a bleak existence, Sullivan’s life changed when she learned from another visually impaired resident of the almshouse that there were schools for the blind. Accordingly, when a state official came to inspect the almshouse in 1880, Sullivan somehow convinced him to let her attend one of those institutions. That school turned out to be the Perkins Institute for the Blind. Because of her lack of schooling, Sullivan at first struggled at the Perkins Institute, but she refused to give up.

Inspired by meeting Laura Bridgman, Sullivan eventually mastered the manual alphabet. Her prospects took another change for the better when eye operations succeeded in restoring an appreciable amount of her vision. By the time that she graduated in 1886, Sullivan had become her class’s valedictorian. Her life experiences therefore placed her in a strategic position to help Helen Keller with her disabilities. Keller at first did not respond well to Sullivan’s instruction, but the two soon had a dramatic breakthrough.

In a scene dramatically depicted in the movie “The Miracle Worker,” one day Sullivan helped Keller realize that the word she was manually spelling was “water” by running cool water over Keller’s hand at the same time. After this realization, Keller proved to be a remarkably quick learner, and Sullivan recommended that she be allowed to attend the Perkins Institute. After six years there, Keller then attended two schools for the deaf. In 1900 she was admitted to Radcliffe College, and four years later she earned the distinction of being the first deaf and blind person to graduate from an American college.

3) Her adult years were spent obviously as a role model and advocate. What specific things are she known for and what kind of legacy did she leave?

Today the world remembers Helen Keller for her efforts to overcome her disabilities, and her work on behalf of others facing the same obstacles. Operating originally through the American Foundation for the Blind, Keller eventually was able to help individuals more effectively through an organization today known as Helen Keller International (HKI).

Interestingly, HKI was largely funded by a man who had himself overcome a serious obstacle. In May of 1915, an American merchant by the name of George Kessler had been a passenger on the Lusitania when it was sunk by a German submarine. Kessler had been one of the survivors, and vowed to help the victims of the First World War. Choosing to focus his efforts on those blinded during the conflict, Kessler had sought out Keller to help him develop procedures that would help these individuals deal with their disability. The organization eventually expanded its operations to include all those afflicted by a visual impairment, and today it serves the citizens of 22 countries.

4) In a sense her life enabled many other individuals with handicaps or disabilities or exceptionalities. In terms of her public life, what activities was she involved with?

Today, most Americans have undoubtedly heard of Helen Keller. In turn, most of these individuals are aware that she overcame her deafness and blindness, and serves as inspiration to all disabled people. What few Americans realize, however, is that Keller was involved in a number of causes that were quite controversial at the time.

For instance, Keller was a member of both the Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World. Moreover, she was a pacifist who opposed America’s entry into the First World War. Finally, she spoke openly in favor of a woman’s right to know about birth control at a time when such information was in violation of the federal Comstock laws. Her outlook on social issues was in many ways quite similar to Mark Twain’s, and just as the American public chooses not to remember his radicalism, we also largely have forgotten the controversial stances that Keller took.

5) Her later years—how were they spent?

After graduating from college, Keller worked tirelessly to help inspire disabled individuals. She wrote 12 books and a number of articles on the subject, and traveled extensively to raise funds for the organizations engaged in helping those with disabilities. A highly effective public speaker, she helped make people aware that individuals with disabilities could be valuable and productive members of society. Beset by a number of strokes in 1961, Keller was forced to become a semi-invalid.

Fortunately, she lived long enough for President Lyndon Johnson to award her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. A year later, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. She would live for another three years, dying at her home in Connecticut.

6) What have I neglected to ask?

The story of Helen Keller is an inspiring one for a number of reasons. Hers is a tale of triumph over adversity, and of how one person can truly make a difference for all. But it is also important to recognize the importance of dedicated teachers. If Anne Sullivan had not persevered in her efforts to teach Helen Keller, the vast potential that Keller possessed would undoubtedly have remained untapped. We should all therefore remember both of these estimable women for what they can tell us about what we are all capable of.

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