Nearly two centuries after the Great Famine drove her parents from Ireland, Perkins School for the Blind alumna Anne Sullivan was inducted into the Irish American Hall of Fame for her extraordinary contributions to education in the United States.
At a gala held at the Irish American Heritage Center in Chicago on April 23, a crowd applauded the accomplishments of Sullivan, who famously helped a young Helen Keller break through the barriers of deafblindness and learn to communicate.
Accepting Sullivan’s award was Perkins interpreter Christine Dwyer and Perkins spokesperson Jaimi Lard, who is deafblind. In their acceptance remarks, the pair described the important relationship that exists between people who are deafblind and the teachers and interpreters who help them communicate.
“I had a tutor when I was just two years old, who came to my home just as Anne came to Helen’s home,” Lard recalled. “She taught me signs, and eventually I understood that the signs are names of things. My first word was my favorite thing: cookie.”
Lard calls that moment of understanding her “water pump moment,” a reference to Keller’s discovery of her first word, “water,” which happened when Sullivan placed Keller’s hand under a gushing spout and signed W-A-T-E-R into her other hand. The moment was made famous by the 1962 film “The Miracle Worker,” which chronicles Keller’s relationship with Sullivan.
Dwyer remembers watching the film as a young girl with her best friend Diane, who was hard of hearing. Afterwards, the two spent hours at the library learning fingerspelling like Keller and Sullivan.
“I knew then that I wanted to work at Perkins School for the Blind,” Dwyer said.
Anne Sullivan overcame many challenges in her life, including visual impairment. At the age of 5, she contracted an eye disease that severely damaged her sight. When her mother died, Sullivan’s father sent Anne and her brother to live at a poor house, where conditions were so deplorable that her brother died just three months later.
In 1880, Sullivan enrolled at Perkins School for the Blind. At the age of 14, she learned to read and write for the first time, and struck up a friendship with Perkins resident Laura Bridgman, the first person who was deafblind to learn language.
Six years later, Sullivan graduated from Perkins at the top of her class. She began working with Keller just one year later, developing child-centered educational methods that are still used today. The two remained close friends until Sullivan died in 1936.
“Anne Sullivan changed education for children who are deafblind,” said Dwyer. “Her way of teaching was revolutionary in the 19th century, and today, the Perkins Deafblind Program still uses that approach. She’s an inspiration to all of us who have chosen to follow in her footsteps.”
Sullivan and nine other inductees were selected by the Irish American Hall of Fame from more than 500 nominations for their “talents, courage, integrity and ingenuity.” Joining Sullivan in the Class of 2016 were baseball legend Nolan Ryan and author Frank McCourt.