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Helen Keller

  b. 1880; d. 1968 | American writer/activist

At The Bottom
 1882

Left her without sight or hearing -- a severe and extremely rare handicap.

At the age of nineteen months, Helen Keller contracted a brief illness (most likely scarlet fever or meningitis) that left her without sight or hearing — a severe and extremely rare handicap.  Over the next few years, Keller and her family were able to communicate through a series of crude signs that she developed with the young daughter of her family’s cook.  Although Keller was able to understand some of what was happening around her, she was “vexed” (as she explained in her autobiography) and sometimes grew so angry that “I kicked and screamed until I was exhausted.” Her parents feared they would be unable to manage her when she grew older; her mother worried that she might someday be raped.  No one knew what to do.

At The Top
 1964

The highest civilian honor an American can receive... was given to Keller in recognition for her decades of public service.

An 84-year-old Helen Keller was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon Johnson.  This award represents the highest civilian honor an American can receive, and it was given to Keller in recognition for her decades of public service.  Over the course of her life, she had worked on behalf of women’s rights, argued passionately against war, and advocated for civil liberties and the dignity of working people.  She helped found the American Civil Liberties Union and Helen Keller International — which supports projects to combat blindness and malnutrition — and wrote numerous books, including her famous autobiography, The Story of My Life.  Most importantly, plays, books, and films had been made about her life, which served as an inspiration to millions of people around the world.

The Comeback

Keller herself possessed a remarkable fighting spirit and a determination to see justice done to the weakest and neediest...

“The most important day I remember in all my life” Helen Keller wrote in 1902, “is the one on which my teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, came to me. I am filled with wonder when I consider the immeasurable contrasts between the two lives which it connects.”  Sullivan, a young teacher from Boston, traveled to Tuscumbia, Alabama in 1887 to live at the Keller estate and try to help young Helen connect with the world around her.  Kate Adams Keller, Helen’s mother, had sought the advice of specialists around the country.  Her efforts eventually led her to Alexander Graham Bell, who put her in touch with the Perkins Institute in Boston, where Anne Sullivan had once been a student. Sullivan’s work with Keller was “a brilliantly successful experiment,” as Bell himself described it.  (He and Keller remained in touch for the rest of his life and corresponded often.)  Sullivan helped her pupil learn to read Braille (in five languages) and even taught her to speak.  Without Sullivan’s guidance — and without the efforts of her parents, who possessed the money and necessary patience to help their daughter — Helen Keller could not have become the person known to the rest of the world. Keller herself possessed a remarkable fighting spirit and a determination to see justice done to the weakest and neediest in the world. For the rest of her life, she fought for others as vigorously as others had fought for her. “You can do anything you think you can,” Bell once wrote to Helen. “Remember that many will be brave in your courage.”

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