Editor’s note: Amy Lynn Smith shares about Helen Keller’s life and work in recognition of Helen Keller DeafBlind Awareness Week. May we remember Helen’s legacy and recognize how, even today, those who are blind, low vision, or DeafBlind are influenced by her legacy.
The story of Helen Keller has been told so many times – in so many ways – that it might be hard to believe that some younger generations don’t know about Helen and her achievements. Even more important, countless people probably aren’t aware of the significant influence Helen Keller had on the lives of others, even today.
Born June 27, 1880, in Alabama, Helen suffered a still-unconfirmed illness when she was 19 months old that left her blind and deaf. Helen found ways to communicate as she grew older, but they weren’t necessarily effective, and she was often considered difficult and temperamental.
Eager to give their child an education, Helen’s parents sought help from some of the leading experts at the time. They ultimately suggested the Kellers hire the teacher Anne Sullivan, a recent graduate of the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, who herself was low vision.
Anne worked diligently with Helen, eventually teaching her sign language and becoming a lifelong friend and companion. Helen became fluent in sign language, studied speech for 20 years so she could be understood, and graduated from Radcliffe College with honors at the age of 24.
As word of Helen’s achievements began to spread in the early 1900s, especially after she published her first book in 1905 – an autobiography entitled The Story of My Life – she became friends with many notable people of the time, such as Mark Twain.
But the story of Helen’s life was only beginning. Today, she is considered one of the United States’ most notable humanitarians, taking a public stance on a variety of social issues from women’s suffrage to the treatment of people with disabilities – and much more. She was a particularly fierce advocate for people who are blind and low vision, testifying before Congress to improve their lives. She was also a co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Over her lifetime, Helen traveled to 35 countries and was America’s first Goodwill Ambassador to Japan. She earned the Theodore Roosevelt Distinguished Service Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and was elected to the Women’s Hall of Fame. She also earned honorary doctoral degrees from universities around the world, and continued her work until just a few years before her death in 1968.
A lasting legacy
There’s really no way to measure how many lives Helen Keller impacted through her advocacy, and for proving by example that everyone, including those who are blind, deaf, or DeafBlind, can achieve their dreams.
American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) is doing its part to reflect how Helen’s legacy shaped the lives of contemporary people who are blind or low vision. AFB commissioned a documentary film in 2020, which is currently in production. The film – Worlds We Live In – captures the voices of today’s diverse blind community while exploring the work and many writings of Helen Keller. Both honest about the barriers people who are blind or low vision still face today and celebratory in its depiction of the pride and joy that exists in today’s blind and low vision culture, Worlds We Live In is a testament to both Helen Keller’s lasting legacy and the people and activists who are carrying on her mission.
Learn more about Worlds We Live In, including some preview clips, at AFB’s website.
Thanks to a partnership between AFB and APH, The Helen Keller Archive compiled by AFB over the years is now housed at APH, where many artifacts – including Helen’s writing desk – are on display at the Museum of the American Printing House for the Blind. The Helen Keller Archive is the single largest collection of materials by and about Helen Keller. Thanks to generous support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, American Express, and other funders, AFB continues to maintain and enhance the digital Helen Keller Archive.
May we remember Helen Keller’s legacy, and may we take up the mantle of her advocacy.