Helen Keller, advocate and traveler

Many know Helen Keller as an advocate for people with disabilities, but did you know she was also a suffragist, civil rights pioneer and global ambassador?

Helen Keller and John F. Kennedy are leaning forward and smiling at one another. Keller’s assistant, Winifred Corbally, sits between them, communicating into Keller’s hand via tactile sign language.

Helen Keller meets with President John F. Kennedy in 1961. During her lifetime, Keller met 12 U.S. presidents, beginning with Grover Cleveland and ending with Kennedy.

August 18, 2015

As one of the leading figures of the 20th century, Helen Keller (1880-1968) is known around the world as a symbol of courage in the face of overwhelming odds.

A former student at Perkins School for the Blind, Keller lost her vision and hearing when she was 19 months old after a bout with an unknown illness. Isolated and frustrated, she made a dramatic breakthrough at age 6 when she learned to communicate using the manual alphabet with the help of her teacher and Perkins alumna, Anne Sullivan.

In the years that followed, Keller would go on to become the first person with deafblindness to graduate from college, publish 14 books – including her bestselling autobiography, The Story of My Life – and travel around the world.

Less well known is the fact that Keller was an outspoken suffragist, an advocate of worker’s rights and an opponent of child labor. In 1916 she donated $100 to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) – then a young and controversial civil rights organization – and was published in the NAACP’s newspaper The Crisis. She was also instrumental in the founding of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind, the nation’s first agency to provide services to adults who are blind.

Throughout her life Keller remained committed to improving the quality of life for people who are blind and deafblind. As a student at Perkins School for the Blind, she initiated and ran fundraising campaigns to establish a kindergarten for the blind and to pay for the education of Tommy Stringer, a poor boy from Pennsylvania who was deafblind.

As an adult, she lobbied for programs for the prevention of blindness, laws for the education and protection of the blind and deafblind, and state-assisted programs to help people with disabilities with job training and placement. In her later years, she traveled to 39 different countries in an effort to persuade foreign governments to establish schools for people who were blind and deaf. Moved by her message, many did just that.

On occasion, Keller represented the U.S. government abroad. In 1948, she was sent to Japan as America’s first Goodwill Ambassador by General Douglas MacArthur. Her visit called attention to the plight of Japan’s blind and disabled population. In 1967, a team from Perkins School for the Blind attended a groundbreaking ceremony at the Yokohama Christian School for the Blind in Japan.

During her lifetime, Keller met every U.S. president, beginning with Grover Cleveland and ending with John F. Kennedy. In 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian honor.

Today, Helen Keller’s legacy of advocacy for people who are blind or deafblind lives on at Perkins. Perkins Library Director and American Council of the Blind President, Kim Charlson, helped pioneer audio description for movies and television, and has been a key player in efforts to make ATMs talk and electric cars louder so people who are blind can hear them coming. Perkins staff and students can also be found advocating for the rights of the disabled in Massachusetts at the annual Blind Legislative Informational Networking Day in March and Deafblind Awareness Day in April.

Read answers to Frequently Asked Questions about Helen Keller, or view a collection of historic Helen Keller photographs on Flickr.

Jamie Gordon is digital fundraising officer for the Trust Department at Perkins School for the Blind.