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Helen Keller

Transcending Disability

By

Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan

Helen Keller and Anne M. Sullivan 1898

Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images
Helen Keller Graduates From Radcliffe

Helen Keller Graduates From Radcliffe

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Helen Keller

Helen Keller at 80

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Known for: learning to communicate despite being blind and deaf; advocate of education for the blind

Occupation: lecturer, writer, reformer

Dates: June 27, 1880 - June 1, 1968

Helen Keller Biography

Her father was a publisher and businessman who had served in the Confederate Army in the Civil War, and her mother was Kate Adams.  She was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama.

Before she was 2 years old, Helen Keller lost her sight and hearing after a high fever. She was often frustrated and the family spoiled her considerably, though she was unable to communicate. Eventually contacted for help in teaching their daughter, Dr. Alexander Graham Bell urged her parents to find a teacher from the Perkins Institute for the Blind.

Anne Sullivan was that teacher, and she arrived when Helen was almost seven years old. The next events are well-known: Helen Keller learning to understand language through the combination of water from a pump on one hand and the spelling of "water" with the manual alphabet into her other hand. Helen Keller said later, "That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!"

Helen Keller progressed with language quickly under Anne Sullivan's tutorage. She learned Braille at the Perkins Institution in Boston and learned to speak at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf in New York. Helen Keller went on to study at the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf, the Cambridge School for Young Ladies, and Radcliffe College, from which she graduated in 1904 with high honors.

For the rest of her life, Helen Keller worked for improving education for the blind, deaf, and mute. She traveled and lectured extensively, even in vaudeville (1922-24). Anne Sullivan Macy, who married Keller's editor John Albert Macy, remained a companion and support to Keller.  

Keller supported socialism, joining the Socialist Party.  She also worked for women's rights.  She became a Swedenborgian in 1896, a religion considered radical and unconventional.  In 1918, she joined the IWW and supported their labor campaigns. She protested the American entry into World War I. Her radical views led to considerable criticism.

During the period 1909 to 1924 Helen Keller devoted considerable effort to raising money for the American Foundation for the Blind.  She spent most of the later years writing and supporting that foundation.

In 1916, she almost married Peter Fagan, her secretary who was 7 years her junior. They obtained a marriage license, but Helen's mother found out about the engagement through a newspaper account, and pressured Helen to break the engagement.

Helen Keller wrote her autobiography, publishing The Story of My Life (1903) and Midstream: My Later Life (1929) as well as publishing several other books, including The World I Live In (1908), The Practice of Optimism (1903, 1915), My Religion (1927), and Teacher, Anne Sullivan Macy: A Tribute by the Foster Child of her Mind (1955). 

Anne Sullivan Macy died in 1936, ending a long relationship. Helen Keller survived Anne Sullivan Macy by more than thirty years.

In 1953, a documentary on her life, The Unconquered, was released; it won an Academy Award.  William Gibson wrote a drama for television based on her life in 1957; this served as the basis for a 1959 play, The Miracle Worker, and then the 1962 film of the same name with Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke, both of whom won Oscars for their performances.

Helen Keller died on June 1, 1968, in Connecticut, where she had made her home. Helen Keller is buried at Washington Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

More About Helen Keller:

  • March 24, 2003: a coin with Helen Keller's image was issued by the U.S. Mint.
  • October 9, 2009: a statue of Helen Keller was unveiled, one of two statues representing the state of Alabama in the U.S. Capitol's collection: Helen Keller

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