Skip to content
Article

Q&A: A factual look at Helen Keller’s accomplishments

A deep dive on what Keller achieved and how she did it – from the experts in the Perkins Archives.

Helen Keller next to Polly Thompson, who's on the phone.

“The public must learn that the blind man is neither a genius nor a freak nor an idiot. He has a mind which can be educated, a hand which can be trained, ambitions which it is right for him to strive to realize, and it is the duty of the public to help him make the best of himself so that he can win light through work.”

~ Helen Keller, 1907

Throughout her life, Helen Keller (1880-1968) was accused of being a fraud. Her list of accomplishments and success in becoming educated was impossible, skeptics often claim, because she could neither see nor hear.

This is called ableism. Ableism is the discrimination of and social prejudice against people with disabilities based on the belief that typical abilities are superior. At its heart, ableism defines people by their disability.

Every once in a while, these accusations that Helen Keller wasn’t real – that she was faking her deafblindness – rise to the surface.

Since Helen Keller was a former student at Perkins School for the Blind, we have a number of Helen Keller collections in our Archive. So we asked Susanna Coit, Archivist and Research Library Assistant for Perkins School for the Blind to refute the allegations that Keller could not have reached her pinnacles of achievement because she was disabled.

How could Helen Keller pilot a plane?

The pilot made accommodations for her. The pilot sat next to Keller and communicated instructions to her via her interpreter and companion, Polly Thomson. Here’s the whole story, from a 1946 newspaper article entitled “Wonderful Helen Keller Flies a ‘Plane.” from American Foundation for the Blind.

How could Helen Keller write 12 books?

Helen Keller wrote books and numerous articles using either a braille typewriter or a regular typewriter. In The Story of My Life, she writes, “Her typewriter has no special attachments. She keeps the relative position of the keys by an occasional touch of the little fingers on the outer edge of the board.”

According to one of Helen Keller’s many biographers, Dorothy Herrmann (Helen Keller: A Life), Helen learned to type early on before getting to the Cambridge School. She did so “using several typewriters with special keyboards and then a Remington that John P. Spaulding, a benefactor, bought her, which she thought ‘the best writing machine that is made.’”

And like any great writer, Helen had editors too, including her teacher Anne Sullivan and her companion Polly Thomson, who would proofread her books and writing.

How could she have such good handwriting?

Keller – and other blind people – were able to put pen to paper successfully with the assistance of a grooved board made especially for people who couldn’t see. There were actually many competing systems for reading and writing for the blind (it wasn’t until 1918 that Standard Braille was adopted as the official system in the United States). Keller herself felt like that was too much of a good thing, writing in a letter to William Wade in 1901: “There is nothing more absurd, I think, than to have five or six different prints for the blind…” You can explore the multiple systems available in the Perkins Archives Writing Systems for the Blind Digital Collection. An example of Keller’s handwriting can be found in an 1892 Children’s Magazine article she wrote in which she explains how she is able to write so clearly.

How was she able to say ‘wawa/water’?

Keller lost her vision and hearing after an illness when she was a toddler, so she had been exposed to language for about 2 years. As a child, she and her family had created some household signs/methods of communication about her basic needs before her formal education began.

From Story of My Life: “As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–-a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand.”

How did she graduate from college?

In 1900, Keller entered Radcliffe College (a women’s college affiliated with the then-all-male Harvard). According to Herrmann’s book, her teacher Anne Sullivan attended with her, and would fingerspell the lectures into her hand in class. Afterwards, Helen would write what she remembered from the lecture using a typewriter. For tests, Keller was assigned objective proctors to assist her if she needed it. Even during her years at Radcliffe, doubt was cast on Helen’s ability: her academic records were kept in the Dean’s office and were available for review – “a surprising number asked to examine them”. She graduated with honors in 1904. Helen Keller’s exams and school work are available to read online in the Helen Keller Arthur Gilman Collection.

How could Helen know or be taught what anything is?

Helen Keller might be Perkins’ most famous deafblind student, but she wasn’t the first. In 1837, Perkins Director Samuel Gridley Howe taught Laura Bridgman to associate objects with words. This is how most children learn – just that sighted and hearing children can use those senses to make the connection. Kids who are deafblind need more explanation initially. Read more about how Perkins teaches deafblind children in the 21st century.

How could she ride a bike?

Well, it was a tandem bike, meaning there was another person on it with her. Called a “sociable bike,” it had four wheels, two sets of pedals and two handle bars. Photographs of students on these bikes are available in the Perkins Archives digitized collections here and here.

How could she understand multiple languages?

Helen interacted with people who traveled widely and were well read, so she became fascinated with other languages. She learned them the same way she originally learned English, supplemented by braille textbooks. Helen also wrote to her friend and mentor Michael Anagnos (a director at Perkins) in French.

Want to know even more about the amazing life of Helen Keller? Check out these sources available online:

Want to help students like Helen Keller learn and succeed? Make a donation to Perkins to support all of the work we’re doing to help students who are blind and visually impaired reach their full potential.

SHARE THIS ARTICLE
A young Helen Keller reading a braille book
Article

Helen Keller timeline

Nella Braddy Henney sitting on a large rock under a flowering tree near her house on Foss Mountain.
Article

Keeping up with the raccoons

Helen Keller and Michael Anagnos in 1891
Article

The Frost King incident