Helen Keller Day

Helen Keller Day, is held yearly on 27 June to commemorate inspiring deafblind American author, political activist, and lecturer Helen Adams Keller, who was born June 27, 1880 and overcame her disability and made a huge impact onthe quality of life of deafblind people the world over. The story of how Keller’s teacher, Anne Sullivan, broke through the isolation imposed by a near complete lack of language, allowing the girl to blossom as she learned to communicate, has become widely known through the dramatic depictions of the play and film The Miracle Worker. Her birthday on June 27 is commemorated as Helen Keller Day in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania and was authorized at the federal level by presidential proclamation by President Jimmy Carter in 1980, her 100th birthday. Keller was a prolific author, and was well-travelled and outspoken in her convictions. A member of the Socialist Party of America and the Industrial Workers of the World, she campaigned for women’s suffrage, labor rights, socialism, and other radical left causes. She was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame in 1971.

Helen Keller was born with the ability to see and hear. At age 19 months she contracted an illness described by doctors as “an acute congestion of the stomach and the brain”, which might have been scarlet fever or meningitis. The illness left her both deaf and blind. At that time, she was able to communicate somewhat with Martha Washington, the six-year-old daughter of the family cook, who understood her signs; by the age of seven, Keller had more than 60 home signs to communicate with her family. In 1886, Keller’s mother, inspired by an account in Charles Dickens’ American Notes of the successful education of another deaf and blind woman, Laura Bridgman, dispatched young Helen, accompanied by her father, to seek out physician J. Julian Chisolm, an eye, ear, nose, and throat specialist in Baltimore, for advice. Chisholm referred the Kellers to Alexander Graham Bell, who was working with deaf children at the time.

Bell advised them to contact the Perkins Institute for the Blind, the school where Bridgman had been educated, which was then located in South Boston. Michael Anagnos, the school’s director, asked former student 20-year-old Anne Sullivan, herself visually impaired, to become Keller’s instructor. It was the beginning of a 49-year-long relationship during which Sullivan evolved into governess and then eventual compaion.Anne Sullivan arrived at Keller’s house in March 1887, and immediately began to teach Helen to communicate by spelling words into her hand, beginning with “d-o-l-l” for the doll that she had brought Keller as a present. Keller was frustrated, at first, because she did not understand that every object had a word uniquely identifying it. In fact, when Sullivan was trying to teach Keller the word for “mug”, Keller became so frustrated she broke the doll. Keller’s big breakthrough in communication came the next month, when she realized that the motions her teacher was making on the palm of her hand, while running cool water over her other hand, symbolized the idea of “water”; she then nearly exhausted Sullivan demanding the names of all the other familiar objects in her world. Due to a protruding left eye, Keller was usually photographed in profile. Both her eyes were replaced in adulthood with glass replicas for “medical and cosmetic reasons”.

In 1888, Keller attended the Perkins Institute for the Blind. In 1894, Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan moved to New York to attend the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf, and to learn from Sarah Fuller at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf. In 1896, they returned to Massachusetts and Keller entered The Cambridge School for Young Ladies before gaining admittance, in 1900, to Radcliffe College, where she lived in Briggs Hall, South House. Her admirer, Mark Twain, had introduced her to Standard Oil magnate Henry Huttleston Rogers, who, with his wife Abbie, paid for her education. In 1904, at the age of 24, Keller graduated from Radcliffe, becoming the first deaf blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. She maintained a correspondence with the Austrian philosopher andpedagogue Wilhelm Jerusalem, who was one of the first to discover her literary talent. Determined to communicate with others as conventionally as possible, Keller learned to speak, and spent much of her life giving speeches and lectures. She learned to “hear” people’s speech by reading their lips with her hands—her sense of touch had become extremely subtle. She became proficient at using Braille and reading sign language with her hands as well Shortly before World War I, with the assistance of the Zoellner Quartet she determined that by placing her fingertips on a resonant tabletop she could experience music played close by

Keller went on to become a world-famous speaker and author. She is remembered as anadvocate for people with disabilities, amid numerous other causes. She was a suffragist, apacifist, an opponent of Woodrow Wilson, a radical socialist and a birth control supporter. In 1915 she and George Kessler founded the Helen Keller International (HKI) organization. This organization is devoted to research in vision, health and nutrition. In 1920 she helped to found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Keller traveled to 40 some-odd countries with Sullivan, making several trips to Japan and becoming a favorite of the Japanese people. Keller met every U.S. President from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon B. Johnson and was friends with many famous figures, including Alexander Graham Bell, Charlie Chaplin and Mark Twain. Keller and Twain were both considered radicals at the beginning of the 20th century, and as a consequence, their political views have been forgotten or glossed over in popular perception. Keller was a member of the Socialist Party and actively campaigned and wrote in support of the working class from 1909 to 1921.

she supported Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs in each of his campaigns for the presidency. Newspaper columnists who had praised her courage and intelligence before she expressed her socialist views now called attention to her disabilities. Keller joined the Industrial Workers of the World (known as the IWW or the Wobblies) in 1912, saying that parliamentary socialism was “sinking in the political bog”. She wrote for the IWW between 1916 and 1918. In Why I Became an IWW, Keller explained that her motivation for activism came in part from her concern about blindness and other disabilities:I was appointed on a commission to investigate the conditions of the blind. For the first time I, who had thought blindness a misfortune beyond human control, found that too much of it was traceable to wrong industrial conditions, often caused by the selfishness and greed of employers. And the social evil contributed its share. I found that poverty drove women to a life of shame that ended in blindness.The last sentence refers to prostitution and syphilis, the former a frequent cause of the latter, and the latter a leading cause of blindness. In the same interview, Keller also cited the 1912 strike of textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts for instigating her support of socialism.

Keller wrote a total of 12 published books and several articles.One of her earliest pieces of writing, at age 11, was The Frost King (1891). There were allegations that this story had been plagiarized from The Frost Fairies by Margaret Canby. An investigation into the matter revealed that Keller may have experienced a case ofcryptomnesia, which was that she had Canby’s story read to her but forgot about it, while the memory remained in her subconscious. At age 22, Keller published her autobiography, The Story of My Life (1903), with help from Sullivan and Sullivan’s husband, John Macy. It recounts the story of her life up to age 21 and was written during her time in college.Keller wrote The World I Live In in 1908, giving readers an insight into how she felt about the world. Out of the Dark, a series of essays on socialism, was published in 1913.When Keller was young, Anne Sullivan introduced her to Phillips Brooks, who introduced her to Christianity, Keller famously saying: “I always knew He was there, but I didn’t know His name!” Her spiritual autobiography, My Religion, was published in 1927 and then in 1994 extensively revised and re-issued under the title Light in My Darkness. It advocates the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, the Christian revelator and theologian who gives a spiritual interpretation of the teachings of the Bible and who claims that the second comingof Jesus Christ has already taken place. Adherents use several names to describe themselves, including Second Advent Christian, Swedenborgian, and New Church

Keller suffered a series of strokes in 1961 and spent the last years of her life at her home.On September 14, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded her 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. Keller devoted much of her later life to raising funds for the American Foundation for the Blind. She died in her sleep on June 1, 1968, at her home, Arcan Ridge, located in Easton, Connecticut, a few weeks short of her eighty-eighth birthday. A service was held in her honor at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and her ashes were placed there next to her constant companions, Anne Sullivan and Polly Thompson

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