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Helen Keller FAQ

Who was Helen Keller?

Helen Keller is considered one of the leading figures of the twentieth century. When she was an infant, illness robbed her of her vision and hearing. Despite the social stigma of being deafblind, Helen devoted her life to helping others. Through her numerous writings and lectures, she is still regarded as one of the most powerful and well-known advocates for people who are blind and deafblind. Her books and speeches have inspired millions of people including many well-known individuals such as Conrad Hilton, founder of Hilton Hotels, Ronald Reagan and Eleanor Roosevelt. Through her tireless efforts, she helped change the way the world viewed people with disabilities. Helen Keller died June 1, 1968.

Where was Helen born?

A very healthy baby, Helen was born June 27, 1880 in Tuscumbia, Alabama to retired army Captain Arthur Keller and his second wife, Kate. Helen had a younger brother, Phillips Brooks and a sister, Mildred. Her father was a cotton plantation owner and the editor of a popular news weekly, The North Alabamian. 

How did Helen become deafblind?

At the age of 19 months, Helen became very ill with a high fever, leaving her totally deaf and blind. Doctors at that time diagnosed it as "brain fever," however, experts now think she may have suffered from scarlet fever or meningitis.

How did Helen communicate with others?

By age seven, Helen had developed nearly 60 hand gestures to communicate with her parents and ask for things. However, she was often frustrated by her inability to express herself. With the help of her teacher, Anne Sullivan, Helen learned the manual alphabet and could communicate by finger spelling. Within a few months of working with Anne, Helen's vocabulary had increased to hundreds of words and simple sentences. Anne also taught Helen how to read braille and raised type, and to print block letters. By age nine, Helen began to learn to speak and read lips, skills she continued to develop over her lifetime.

Who was Anne Sullivan?

Anne Sullivan was Helen Keller's teacher, companion and friend for nearly 50 years. Anne was born April 14, 1866 in Feeding Hills, Massachusetts to poor Irish immigrants. At the age of five, Anne contracted trachoma, a contagious conjunctivitis that attacks the eyes, and was left almost entirely blind. She later received several eye operations that restored some of her vision. After graduating class valedictorian from Perkins School for the Blind in 1886, she moved to Tuscumbia, Alabama to become Helen Keller's teacher. Anne remained with Helen until her death on October 20, 1936.

Where did Helen attend school?

Helen attended Perkins School for the Blind for four years. She then spent a year at the Cambridge School for Young Ladies to prepare for Radcliffe College. In 1904, she graduated cum laude from Radcliffe and became the first deafblind person to earn a bachelor of arts degree. Later, Helen was the first woman to be awarded an honorary degree from Harvard University. She also received honorary degrees from Temple University and the Universities of Glasgow, Scotland; Delhi, India; Berlin, Germany; and Witwatersrand and Johannesburg, South Africa.

What subjects did Helen study?

Helen was an avid reader and follower of politics and world events. Among her favorite books were philosophy texts and volumes of poetry. She also enjoyed studying history and economics as well as foreign languages including French, Latin and German.

After completing school, what did Helen do?

Helen used her education and influence to help improve the lives of others. She published several books and essays about her own life and views and spent much of her time lecturing and lobbying for important social issues including women's suffrage and assistance for people who were blind and deafblind. Helen also performed vaudeville and had a taste of Hollywood, making two movies about her life, "Deliverance" and "The Unconquered." Much of Helen's later years were spent traveling around the world, raising money and awareness for the blind and other social issues.

Did Helen ever marry?

No, although she was briefly engaged and had many admirers. Helen's teacher and lifetime companion Anne Sullivan did marry, however, and Helen lived with Anne and her husband, John Macy.

Did Helen meet anyone famous?

Helen Keller made several famous friends and acquaintances. Among her friends were author Mark Twain and inventor Alexander Graham Bell. Helen also met Charlie Chaplin, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martha Graham, India's former Prime Minister Nehru, the Queen of England, and 12 U.S. presidents, from Grover Cleveland to John F. Kennedy.

What kind of causes and charities did Helen advocate?

Helen worked for a variety of causes during her life. She was an outspoken suffragist, an advocate of worker's rights and an opponent of child labor, but she is best known for her commitment to improving the quality of life for people who are blind and deafblind. As a student at Perkins, she initiated and ran fundraising campaigns to establish a Perkins' kindergarten for the blind and to pay for the education of Tommy Stringer, a poor, deafblind boy she met. As an adult, she lobbied for programs for the prevention of blindness, laws for the education and protection of the blind and deafblind, as well as state-assisted programs to help people with disabilities with job training and placement.

Did Helen receive any awards?

Helen Keller received numerous awards throughout her life for her humanitarian efforts. In 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson awarded Helen the highest American honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. On the 50th anniversary of her graduation from Radcliffe College, she received the Alumnae Achievement Award. Radcliffe also dedicated the Helen Keller Garden to her and named a fountain in the garden for her teacher Anne Sullivan. Helen later received Brazil's Order of the Southern Cross, the Philippines' Golden Heart, Japan's Sacred Treasure, and in 1991, was named one of the most important people of the twentieth century by Life magazine.

Who assisted Helen after Anne Sullivan died?

After Anne passed away in 1936, Polly Thompson, who had worked in the Keller household since 1914, became Helen's aide. Polly passed away in 1960 and Winifred Corbally, a nurse-companion, assisted Helen until Helen's death in 1968.

How can I learn more about Helen Keller?

Helen Keller published many articles, essays and books. Among them are two autobiographies, The Story of My Life and Midstream: My Later Life, and a biography of her life with Anne Sullivan called Teacher: Anne Sullivan. She also published Optimism: An Essay, The World I Live in, The Song of the Stone Wall, Out of the Dark, My Religion, Peace at Eventide, Helen Keller in Scotland, Helen Keller's Journal, Let Us Have Faith, and The Open Door.

Among the many biographies are Helen and Teacher: The story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy by Joseph P. Lash and Helen Keller: A Life by Dorothy Herrmann.

In addition, the movie "The Miracle Worker" was released in 1962 and was remade for television in 2000. "The Miracle Worker" chronicles many of the challenges and triumphs during Helen's youth. Anne Bancroft won an Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of Anne Sullivan. Patty Duke played the part of Helen Keller and also won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Both actresses also starred in the Broadway version.

What causes deafblindness?

Back in Helen Keller's time, people who were deafblind were usually born with all their senses. They became deafblind as a result of childhood illness. The illness that Helen had when she was a year and a half old was probably scarlet fever. Today people still get scarlet fever, but it is easier to control with medications. Back then, another disease that could result in deafblindness was meningitis. Again, while the bacterial form is still with us, when caught in time it can be treated with antibiotics. Nowadays people who are deafblind are often born that way because they are extremely premature. This can cause a lot of additional problems, such as developmental disabilities, problems walking, or medical complications.

How has deafblind education changed since Helen Keller was a student?

Some of the techniques that Anne used with Helen are still used today. We still use tactile sign language with some of our students. However, most of our students are not totally deafblind like Helen. Most have some usable sight or some usable hearing. So students with some usable sight can actually see the sign language close up. Students who have some usable hearing may not need sign language, but they do need to study braille. Students also use pictures, objects, and even computers to help them communicate with others.

Helen Keller didn't have a teacher until she was almost seven years old. Most of the students who are deafblind today are luckier because parents and teachers start working with them when they are infants. They don't have to wait to begin education and they learn how to communicate at an early age.