Biography of Helen Keller

Inspirational Deafblind Heroine With Enduring Appeal

Helen Keller in 1904 - Topical Press Agency - Hulton Archives - Getty Images
Topical Press Agency - Hulton Archives - Getty Images

One of the most inspiring deaf or deafblind women is Helen Keller (1880–1968). She learned to communicate and became a noted author, lecturer, and political activist.

Early Years

Helen Keller was born June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbia, Alabama. Her birthplace is a museum today. An unidentified illness took her hearing and sight when she was only 19 months old. After losing both, her family was not able to communicate with her or teach her effectively. They viewed her behavior as wild and uncontrollable.

Anne Sullivan became Helen Keller's teacher in 1887, working in a role that today is known as an intervenor. Helen finally learned that things have names when Sullivan had the famous "water" breakthrough, fingerspelling "water" into Helen's hand while pumping water over Helen's hand for her to feel.

After that breakthrough, there was no stopping Helen Keller. She went on to attend a school for the blind and other schools. She learned how to talk and lipread with her fingers. She attended Radcliffe College with tuition paid by a benefactor, Standard Oil magnate Henry Huttleston Rogers. She graduated from Radcliffe College in 1904 at the age of 24 with a Bachelor of Arts degree.

Personal Life

Helen Keller never lived independently (unlike today where many deafblind people live independently). She always lived with either Anne Sullivan (and for a few years, Anne Sullivan's husband as well) or Polly Thompson, who joined the household in the 1930s and stayed on after Sullivan passed away in 1936. Among the many things that Helen Keller was famous for saying was her statement that deafness was a "greater affliction" than blindness. Helen Keller passed away on June 1, 1968.

Helen Keller was a noted advocate for people with disabilities. She traveled to over 40 countries, accompanied by Annie Sullivan. She met with every U.S. president serving during her adult life and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.

Keller espoused socialist causes, joining the Industrial Workers of the World and the Socialist Party and campaigning for them. She helped found the American Civil Liberties Union.

Autobiographies

Helen wrote movingly about her own life, in books that remain in print:

  • "The Story of My Life" 1903: Keller writes of her life up to age 21. It was written while she was in college
  • "The World I Live In" 1908: Keller follows up her autobiography with more details of life as a deafblind person.
  • "Light in My Darkness" 1927: This is her spiritual autobiography which shows that she followed the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg.
  • "Teacher: Anne Sullivan Macy"

Keller not only wrote about her own life but was a prolific writer on other topics. Many of her writings are preserved online by the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), with which she was closely affiliated.

Children's Books About Helen Keller

Helen Keller has been the subject of many books, particularly children's books. The image of a little girl discovering language through the spelling of the word "w-a-t-e-r" into her hand is fascinating for children. These books can be inspirational for children who are deaf or blind. They also can help any child appreciate overcoming communication difficulties. Here are some of them:

  • "A Girl Named Helen Keller"
  • "A Picture Book of Helen Keller"
  • "Helen Keller: Courage in the Dark"

Adult Books About Helen Keller

Many books for adult books have been about Helen Keller as well, some of which focus on her relationship with Anne Sullivan.

  • "Helen and Teacher: The Story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy"
  • "Helen Keller: A Life"

Movies About Helen Keller

Helen's story was dramatized in the play "The Miracle Worker," and transformed onto both the big and small screens.

  • The original 1962 movie featured Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke.
  • A televised remake of "The Miracle Worker" in 1979 starred Melissa Gilbert.
  • Yet another remake, in 2000, starred Hallie Kate Eisenberg. The Described and Captioned Captioned Media Program has the Disney version of "The Miracle Worker."

Legacy

As part of Helen's legacy, her name has been adopted by two organizations focused on the needs of the blind and deafblind: