What a strange life I lead — a kind of Cinderella-life — half glitter in crystal shoes, half mice and cinders! But it is a wonderful life all the same.

Many people know Helen Keller from the film, and subsequent play, The Miracle Worker. They know her as the young girl who could neither hear, nor see, nor speak, who worked and fought and struggled, alongside her teacher Anne Sullivan, to finally grasp language. However, this is only the beginning of Helen’s inspiring story.

Helen was born in Alabama on 27 June, 1880. She was a healthy child who, by all accounts, was actually quite developmentally advanced. However, eighteen short months later, everything changed. Helen fell ill with a high fever, and in just a matter of days, she lost the ability to both hear and see.

Life after that was challenging for Helen and her family. As she grew older, she began to have traumatic outbursts, and many people believed – without the understanding of the psychological challenges Helen was facing – that she belonged in an institution. Her parents, however, were unwilling to give up on her. Instead, they visited specialists and eventually hired a private tutor for her.

A person who is severely impaired never knows […] hidden sources of strength until […] treated like a normal human being.

Anne Sullivan began working with 7 year old Helen as soon as she arrived in Alabama. It was a nearly constant struggle, but Anne, much like Helen’s parents, refused to give up on her. Things eventually got so difficult that Anne requested that Helen be removed from the family home so that she could focus exclusively on Anne’s instruction. The two moved to a nearby plantation, and not long after, Helen had a breakthrough. For the first time, she began to understand the connection between the objects in her hands and the words Anne was teaching her to finger spell. Once the breakthrough occurred, Helen was unstoppable.

Thirteen years later, in 1890, Anne began attending a formal school. She started with speech classes at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf in Boston. It would take 25 years for Helen to learn to speak in way that could be understood by non-signers, but she did it. She also studied at the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf in New York City, where she studied traditional academic subjects as well as ways to become a better communicator. In addition to her studies at both schools, Helen also decided she wanted to attend a traditional college, so she enrolled at Radcliff College. She graduated with her degree, cum laude, at the age of 24.

After college, Helen continued to share her story and began working to improve the lives of others with disabilities, even testifying before Congress in an effort to advocate for the blind. She also began fighting for women’s rights, becoming active in the women’s suffrage movement.

The chief handicap of the blind is not blindness, but the attitude of seeing people towards them.

Helen’s celebrity continued to grow, which gave her an even bigger platform for her activism. In 1915, she co-founded Helen Keller International to fight causes of blindness, like malnutrition, and help those living without sight. Helen Keller International remains active to this day, leading the fight against blindness worldwide. Five years later, she co-founded The American Civil Liberties Union (the ACLU), which also remains a hugely important organization in the US today.

At a speech at Carnegie Hall in 1916, Helen revealed her powerful opposition to warfare, calling for peace, for strategy and for rebellion against the destruction of life through battle.

Strike against all ordinances and laws and institutions that continue the slaughter of peace and the butcheries of war. Strike against war, for without you no battles can be fought. Strike against manufacturing shrapnel and gas bombs and all other tools of murder. Strike against preparedness that means death and misery to millions of human beings. Be not dumb, obedient slaves in an army of destruction. Be heroes in an army of construction.

In addition to founding her own organisations, Helen also worked with the American Foundation of Overseas Blind, for whom she served as the counselor of international relations. As part of her work with the foundation, Helen travelled the world, giving speeches that inspired people and raised awareness. In the eleven years she spent in this position, she completed trips to 35 countries. She even undertook a 5-month, 40,000-mile trip across Asia when she was 75 years old. Everywhere she went, Helen challenged perceptions of the disabled and showed people just how much she was capable of.

I believe humility is a virtue, but I prefer not to use it unless it is absolutely necessary.

In 1961, Helen suffered several strokes, which effectively ended her travelling. She died in her sleep seven years later at the age of 87. In her lifetime, Helen made enormous strides for both women and the disabled, and in recognition of her achievements, she received a plethora of honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, an honorary doctorate from Harvard, and the Theodore Roosevelt Distinguished Service Medal. She was also inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame.

References include Biography.com, The Miracle Worker, HKI, AFB and Helen Keller, Strike Against War, 1916. Online. Gifts of Speech. Available: http://gos.sbc.edu/k/keller.html. 9 July 2015. 

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Amber Karlins

Written by Amber Karlins

Amber works as a professor in Florida, teaching writing, literature, and theatre. Her first book, a work of creative non-fiction, was published in 2011. She also enjoys academic writing and has published papers in such places as the African American National Biography and the Journal for the Society of Armenian Studies.
Will Elliott

Image by Will Elliott

Will Elliott is a comic-artist and illustrator hailing from rural Buckinghamshire. He's currently writing and drawing a regular comic series, "Opera Strip" for Sinfini Music (amongst other things).