Celebrating Helen Keller and Her Enduring Legacy
It may be hard to imagine, but Helen Keller – who was born June 27, 1880 – and her beloved teacher and friend, Annie Sullivan, were their era’s equivalent of TikTok stars.
Annie famously taught the deafblind Helen to learn language by forming letters in her hand, after which Helen learned to write, read braille, speak, and give public speeches. When Helen was an adult, they traveled the world as celebrities, educating people about the abilities of people who are deafblind or visually impaired.
“Even when Helen was a kid, she was writing letters to kings and queens and princes around Europe,” says Micheal Hudson, director of the Museum of the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) that’s based at APH’s headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky. “She then became friends with famous people like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, many U.S. Presidents, and a lot of writers and authors – including Mark Twain. She and Annie even visited him at his estate. Helen and Annie were very much creatures of the media.”
Following an Unexpected Path to Success
In addition to her voluminous collection of letters, Helen published about a dozen books, most of which are still in print, and traveled to 35 different countries giving speeches and raising millions of dollars for American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), where she worked for 44 years. She championed the causes of other blindness organizations all over the world and became somewhat of a goodwill ambassador for the United States.
Despite Helen’s obvious determination, her life was shaped by a series of coincidences.
“If she had not gotten sick as a little girl and lost her sight and hearing, would any of us know who she was?” Micheal says. “Her parents talked to several doctors, one of them being Alexander Graham Bell, who was one of the foremost experts on special education. That’s how she was connected to the Perkins School for the Blind and, ultimately, Annie Sullivan. If all that hadn’t happened, she might have married at 19 and had a family and maybe have written a few newspaper articles, but otherwise, no one would ever have heard of her. I think that’s very interesting to think about.”
Leading an Inspiring Life
Throughout her lifetime, Helen worked hard to improve herself and the lives of others. She was the first person who was deafblind to earn a college degree in the United States, from Radcliffe College, at a time when many people didn’t think women should even go to college. Although she did learn braille, Helen still often communicated with the help of Annie spelling into her hand. But Annie was not allowed to be with Helen during any of her exams, because there was an incorrect assumption that it was Annie who was actually doing all the work.
“Helen was very intelligent,” Micheal says. “Radcliffe didn’t give her any accommodations. It was simply through the help of Annie and Helen’s many friends who paid to have her textbooks transcribed into braille. Helen would take notes in class using a slate and stylus, a handwriting tool for taking braille notes.”
In other words, Helen earned the degree all on her own, with accommodations of the time – just as a student would today. This was even more challenging because at the time, there wasn’t one universally accepted form of braille. One test Helen took was in a form of braille she’d only been acquainted with a few days before, yet she persevered. She went on to learn braille in German and French – proving, as Micheal says, that she had an incredible gift for language and communication. Ultimately, she preferred the braille that’s the standard today and used a braille writer. She was also an excellent typist who typed up the manuscripts and speeches she wrote in braille. As she became increasingly famous, she had a team to assist her, including Annie and, later, Polly Thomson, who would review her typewritten work.
Establishing a Legacy
Helen went on to be an outspoken advocate for many issues. She didn’t simply stand up for people who are deafblind, blind, or have other disabilities. She was a progressive woman, which was not typical in those times. She was an advocate of women’s rights, one of the founders of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and one of the early white members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
“So many people know Helen for the story of her childhood, but it would be a disservice to her not to learn more about her life as an adult and the causes she championed,” Micheal says. “In Germany, before World War II, the Nazis were burning books they didn’t like and one of them was Helen’s. She wrote a letter to the student body telling them she knew what they were doing.” In fact, the letter begins with, “History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas.”
AFB has created a digital archive of all of Helen Keller’s letters, writings, news clippings, artifacts, and more – including that cablegram – which are accessible to anyone at any time.
Both Helen and Annie wrote in their wills that they wished some of their historical materials be preserved in a small museum and available for public display. APH has partnered with AFB to help realize that dream. In early 2020 APH began gathering Helen and Annie’s historical materials. APH has acquired 22 pallets worth of items from AFB as part of a long-term. Among those loaned items is Helen’s writing desk. For those who want to learn even more about Helen and Annie, both the Keller family home in Alabama and Perkins School for the Blind have wonderful collections that complement the APH exhibit.