I'm starting today's blog with an admission of guilt. I loved telling jokes about today's person of interest when I was in grade school. Being immature and unaware of how many people are affected by particular life challenges, I thought these jokes were funny. That is to say; I laughed at what I didn't understand. I am grateful that I have come to a grander level of understanding and grace.
Today, the woman I'm focusing on was the first deafblind person to ever graduate from college. She spent her entire adult life advocating for people with disabilities and equal rights. Furthermore, she traveled the whole U.S. and 35 other countries to promote knowledge and understanding and shape policies and practices to support the blind. Yes, I'm talking about Hellen Keller.
Helen was a unique and wonderful person. At 19 months of age, she contracted an unknown illness described by doctors as "an acute congestion of the stomach and the brain."
The sickness took her ability to hear and see just a few months shy of her second birthday. Keller described in her autobiography that she felt "at sea in a dense fog."
Help, I need Somebody
Keller had to create a new way to communicate. She started to interact with Martha Washington, the two-year-older daughter of the family cook, who understood her signs. She had 11 new signs by the age of seven.
Keller had created more than 60 personal signs to communicate with her family and could also distinguish people by the vibration of their footsteps.
Words have Meaning
Meanwhile, when Helen was six years old, her parents started investigating schools and experts who could help her. Alexander Gram Bell was working with deaf children at the time. Bell advised them to contact the Perkins Institute for the Blind in South Boston. While she attended Perkins, Helen met Anne Sullivan, herself visually impaired. Anne was Helen's instructor and friend for the next 50 years.
Sullivan was twenty years old and well trained in teaching blind and deaf children. She immediately began to teach Helen to communicate by spelling words into her hand, starting with "d-o-l-l" for the doll that she had brought Keller as a present. However, this new type of teaching was frustrating because Helen did not understand that every object had a word uniquely identifying it. When Sullivan was trying to teach Keller the word "mug," Keller became so frustrated she broke the mug. But soon, she began imitating Sullivan's hand gestures. "I did not know that I was spelling a word or even that words existed," Keller remembered. "I was simply making my fingers go in monkey-like imitation."
There is Always More
However, the more Keller became aware that the motions her teacher made on the palm of her hand related to "things," she made her most significant breakthrough. In her autobiography, The Story of My Life, Keller recalled the moment: "I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something was 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 extraordinary cool something that was flowing over my hand. The living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, set it free!" Consequently, Keller made Sullivan teach her the names of all the other familiar objects in her world.
Helen was a fast learner and decided to continue her education at the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf. As a result, she learned from Sarah Fuller at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf. Moreover, Keller entered The Cambridge School for Young Ladies before gaining admittance, in 1900, to Radcliffe College of Harvard University.
Furthermore, Her admirer, Mark Twain, had introduced her to Standard Oil tycoon Henry Huttleston Rogers, who paid for her entire education. As a result, Helen graduated as a member of Phi Beta Kappa from Radcliffe at age 24, becoming the first deafblind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree.
For the People
Helen was never one to rest on her laurels; she resolved to learn how to communicate with others conventionally. That is to say; she learned how to use her fingers to feel the lips and throat of the speaker. She became proficient at using braille and using fingerspelling to communicate. Keller learned to speak and spent much of her life giving speeches and lectures on aspects of her life.
There are many reasons to be impressed with Helen Keller; above all else, her travel and lectures taught happiness and understanding to her audiences. She traveled to twenty-five different countries, giving motivational speeches about Deaf people's conditions. Keller made several trips to Japan and became a favorite of the Japanese people. Furthermore, Helen met every U.S. president from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon B. Johnson and was friends with many famous figures, including Alexander Graham Bell, Charlie Chaplin, and Mark Twain.
Most importantly, Helen knew that she had an economically advantageous family. Keller spoke on the rights of all people, especially the poor. She wrote, "I owed my success partly to the advantages of my birth and environment. I have learned that the power to rise is not within reach of everyone."
Do You Want to Share?
Social reform was always an area the Keller pushed. She was both lauded and vilified for her beliefs. As a result, Keller joined the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW) in 1912. She wrote the following statement as a member of the commission to investigate the conditions of the blind:
For the first time I, who had thought blindness a misfortune beyond human control, found that too much of it was traceable to wrong industrial conditions, often caused by the selfishness and greed of employers. And the social evil contributed its share. I found that poverty drove women to a life of shame that ended in blindness.
Hellen was fearless and determined to communicate with others. She lived a life very few of us would have ever asked for or accepted. However, we see her for all she has done to remind us of the beauty of all life. The idea that we all have something to contribute to each other lives on through her and in us.