"The only real blind person at Christmas-time is he who has not Christmas in his heart." - Helen Keller
Helen Keller was born in June 1880 in Alabama. At about 19 months she contracted a disease that was probably scarlet fever or meningitis which left her totally deaf and blind. By the time she was almost seven she had grown into an unruly child with very little understanding of her world (she had a limited repetoire of about 60 non-standard signs that she was able to use to communicate with her family to a limited degree). Her mother, inspired by American Notes, a travelogue written by Charles Dickens which includes an account of the successful education of Laura Bridgman (born fifty years earlier who was struck deaf and blind by illness at two years old), was put in touch with Alexander Graham Bell, who worked with deaf children at the time. Bell advised her to contact the Perkins Institute for the Blind, where Bridgman had been educated. Shortly after, Anne Sullivan, 20 years old and visually impaired, arrived to teach Helen.
Within two months, Anne achieved a breakthrough, successfully making the connection in Helen's mind between the sign for "water" and the cool liquid running over the young girl's hand. After this, Helen was inexhaustible in her demands to learn. At eight years old she attended the Perkins Institute for the Blind, then moved through three more schools before, at the age of 20, being admitted to Radcliffe College. She graduated at the age of 24, the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree.
Not content with simply learning to read Braille and sign language (with her hands) and to be able to sign herself, Helen learned to write (publishing 12 books and several articles), and to speak - giving many speeches and lectures. She also learned to "hear" speach by reading people's lips with her hands. She travelled prolifically and was an outspoken opponent of war, and proponent of women's suffrage and workers' rights.
Anne stayed with Helen until Anne's death 49 years later, gradually changing from governess to companion. When Anne's health started to fail in 1914, Polly Thompson was hired to keep house. Over the years, Polly transitioned from housekeeper to secretary, becoming a constant companion to Keller.
In 1964, President Johnson awarded Helen the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the United States' two highest civilian honors. In 1965 she was elected to the National Women's Hall of Fame at the New York World's Fair. She died in her sleep at home in 1968. Her ashes were placed next to those of Anne and Polly.
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