Helen Keller – a true inspiration

Published 1:10 pm Thursday, January 20, 2022

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Most older Americans recognize the name Helen Keller, but few younger Americans are familiar with her. Her life story is one that needs to be told to all generations.

Helen was born in Alabama in 1880. At age 19 months she was stricken with an illness that caused her to lose both her hearing and eyesight. The exact cause of this condition was not known at the time, but doctors wrote that it was an “acute congestion of the stomach and brain.” Modern medical experts speculate it could have been a form of meningitis, rubella or scarlet fever.

While she could not see or hear, she could speak. However, at 19 months she had not fully developed speech patterns. She and her family learned to communicate with “home signs,” a system of hand signals unique to her and her family members. News accounts at the time indicate there were over 60 signs used by the family. Keller could identify family members by the vibrations of their footsteps.

At age 7, she had the good fortune to meet Anne Sullivan, who would teach her better ways to communicate, and who would be her close friend for the next 50 years. Sullivan was 20 years old when she met Keller and was a recent graduate of the Perkins Institution for the Blind in South Boston. Sullivan taught her to cope with her disabilities by writing alphabetic letters and numbers in the palm of Keller’s hand.

Sullivan then taught Keller using a technique called “Tadoma” in which blind-deaf people place their fingers on the face of the person speaking. This method allows a blind-deaf person to feel the movement of lips and jaw structure as well as the vibration of the person’s vocal cords.

With the skills learned from Sullivan, Keller was able to attend Radcliffe College of Harvard University and earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. She wanted to use her experiences to help other people with similar disabilities. At one time she contacted Alexander Graham Bell, credited with inventing the telephone, who was working with deaf children. Bell took special interest in Keller, since she was both deaf and blind. He encouraged her to write and travel to tell her inspirational story.

Helen Keller died in Connecticut in 1968 at age 87. She had written 14 books and traveled to more than 25 countries telling her story. Mark Twain became her close friend and said she delivered a “message of optimism, of hope, of good cheer.” She met every U.S. president from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon Johnson.

These are tough times with COVID, inflation, empty store shelves, and many other reasons to complain. For one who dealt with being both deaf and blind, Helen Keller did leave a legacy that we can overcome some significant challenges and thrive thereafter.


Robert N. Holt