Born June 27, 1880
Died June 1, 1968
Helen Keller was born on June 27, 1880 in Alabama. She was a normal and happy child and seemed to be precocious at a young age. In February 1882 she contracted an unidentified illness, with symptoms of pain and high fever. This illness left her blind and deaf.
Because of her inability to communicate, Kellerís behavior was often violent. She pinched, hit, and threw objects. Still, she could be gentle and loving also. Her family debated what was best for her. They took Helen to see Alexander Graham Bell, who worked with deaf people. He suggested that they write the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston, Massachusetts. So in 1886 the Kellerís contacted the Perkins Institution. The director of Perkins, Michael Anagnos, wrote to Annie Sullivan, a former pupil, asking her if she would be interested in a job working with Keller.
On March 3, 1887 Annie Sullivan arrived in Tuscumbia, Alabama at Kellerís home. Kellerís first response to her new teacher was curiosity. Soon, however, she grew angry when she was not allowed to search through Sullivanís luggage. Sullivan started teaching Keller the manual alphabet immediately. This is an alphabet used for deaf individuals, where words are spelled by forming letters with oneís hand. Since Keller was blind as well as deaf, the letters had to be formed in her hand so she was able to feel the position of the hand.
Kellerís behavior was rude and disruptive. Even though Sullivan advised Kellerís parents not to give in to her tantrums, they had a hard time disciplining her. After a while Sullivan convinced Kellerís parents that just Keller and herself must live together. Finally, they agreed to let Keller and Sullivan live in a small cottage on their property. At first living together was difficult, but soon teacher and pupil began to work together.
Keller was quick to imitate the manual alphabet. However, she did not understand that the letters spelled words which had a meaning. Then on April 5, 1887 Keller made the connection. Sullivan had taken Keller out to the pump and held her hands in the running water, as she finger spelled w-a-t-e-r. Keller spelled water back and soon learned many other words.
Once Keller grasped the concept of words she was eager to learn more. Sullivan taught Keller to read and write in braille. In 1888 Keller accompanied Sullivan to the Perkins Institution. Because Keller was deaf as well as blind, Sullivan attended every class with Keller, spelling the teachersí words for her. Keller studied English, arithmetic, geography, zoology, and several different languages. Keller also learned to speak with the help of a teacher who specialized in this area.
Keller enjoyed traveling and attended a school for the deaf in New York City. While she was there she met Mark Twain, author of Tom Sawyer, who became a close personal friend. Keller entered the Cambridge School for Young Ladies in Massachusetts at the age of sixteen. This was particularly challenging, since the other students there were neither deaf nor blind.
In 1899 Keller was accepted into Radcliffe College where she wrote her autobiography with the help of a writer and editor, John Macy. The Story of My Life by Keller was published in 1903. She had always worked to help provide opportunities for deaf and blind individuals and after graduating from Radcliffe in 1904 she became active in politics. She supported womenís suffrage and birth control and spoke against child labor and capital punishment.
Keller made a lecture tour of America in 1914. In 1918 Keller helped make a film of her own life entitled, Deliverance. Afterwards she and Sullivan acted out Kellerís life on stage and Keller began a fundraising tour for the American Foundation for the Blind. Slowly Sullivanís health declined and a woman named Polly Thomson came to live with them. On October 1936, Kellerís best friend, Annie Sullivan, died.
Although Keller was devastated by the death of her long time teacher and friend, she was determined to continue her work. Thompson agreed to help her. In 1937 Keller and Thompson toured Japan. During World War II, Keller spent her time visiting wounded soldiers and giving hope to many who had been blinded. She also made a special appeal on the behalf of blind black people. She continued touring foreign countries through 1945, raising money for the blind.
Kellerís book Teacher, about Annie Sullivanís work in her life, was published in 1955. In 1960 Thompson died and by 1961 Kellerís failing health forced her to quit her public appearances. By the time of her death on June 1, 1968 Keller had been awarded an honorary degree by Temple University and was the first woman to ever be given an honorary degree by Harvard University. Keller had traveled to Australia, South America, Africa, India, and the Middle East, and she had more than five works published including writings on religion, politics, and personal accomplishments.
Books for Children
- Helen Keller by Margaret Davidson - a biography of her life for ages 9 and older. ( amazon.com has it)
- A Picture Book of Helen Keller by David A. Adler - for ages 6-9. ( amazon.com has it)
- The Miracle Worker - (vhs) (1962) Starring Bancroft and Duke, no rating. ( amazon.com has it)
- Tragedy to Triumph - Helen Keller her biography at In Search of the Heroes offers some interesting classroom activities.
- The Life of Helen Keller - a nice biography at RNIB the Royal National Institute for the Blind
- The American Foundation for the Blind.