Helen Keller Photo

Helen Keller

By Cailin Reiff, LUX1 S2ENA

Helen Keller was born in 1880 in the U.S. She had a ‘normal life’ until nineteen months of age. At nineteen months old Keller became ill with an undiagnosed illness. The doctors described it as an “acute congestion of the stomach and the brain”. This illness was what we would now call scarlet fever, or meningitis. It left her deaf and blind. She lived, as she later described in her autobiography, “at sea in a dense fog”, alone, unable to hear or see. Keller writes that she had no idea that words or sounds existed. She’d simply forgotten all about them. 

By the age of seven Keller could identify people by the vibrations of their footsteps and talk to them using hand signs. Her life changed when a new teacher, Anne Sullivan, arrived at her home. Sullivan taught Keller the names of objects by writing on her hands with water. She began with “d-o-l-l,” for the doll she had bought Keller as a gift. The girl became more and more frustrated as time went on because she did not know that each object had a specific name for it. Soon after Sullivan arrived, Keller started to catch on. She began placing her fingers on Sullivan’s lips to feel their movements and copying hand gestures Sullivan had led her through. She called them “monkey- like” movements in her autobiography. About a month into her lessons, Keller made a huge breakthrough. “I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten — a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that w-a-t-e-r meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. The living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, set it free!” Keller finally understood. 

Sullivan’s teachings were not in vain. Keller became fluent in six languages and developed a talent for writing. She authored and publishing twelve books. She greatly supported the deafblind community, and later in life, women’s rights. Her other accomplishments include starting the Helen Keller International (HKI) organization, a medical NGO whose goal is to research and combat the causes of blindness. After many years of service to the U.S deafblind community, Keller passed away at the age of 87 and was buried in the Washington National Cathedral.  

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