Who was Helen Keller?

Helen Keller was a blind and deaf author, political activist and lecturer who received critical acclaim for her achievements throughout her career

Helen Adams Keller was born on 27 June 1880 in Tuscumbia, a small, rural town in Alabama, USA. Born with full sight and hearing, in 1882 Helen fell ill from what’s thought to be scarlet fever or meningitis. Soon after the illness, Keller started failing to respond and it became apparent she had been left both deaf and blind.

When Heller was six years old, her mother Kate visited scientist Alexander Graham Bell, who had been working with deaf children, and suggested Helen’s family to write to Michael Anagnos, the director of the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts Asylum For The Blind. Following the meeting, Keller was assigned a partially sighted teacher named Anne Sullivan who started communicating with Keller by spelling words on her hand, but her attempts had limited success.

After a few months of work, however, Sullivan made a breakthrough. While leading Keller to a water pump, Sullivan held one of Keller's hands under a running tap and wrote 'water' on the other. The event triggered Keller to make the connection between the shapes on her hand and objects around her, and it was the beginning of her rapid grasp of language. It wasn't long before Keller was able to read and write using raised letters, then later with braille. Keller went on to study at the Cambridge School for Young Ladies and in the autumn of 1900 entered Radcliffe College becoming the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree.

During her career Keller wrote a number of books and essays including The Story Of My Life (1903), which became a renowned classic, The World I Live In (1909), Out Of The Dark (1913), a series of essays on socialism, and finally Teacher, published in 1955. A film on Keller's life, 'Deliverance', was made in Hollywood in 1919, however, Keller was unhappy with the glamorised nature of it. In 1953 a documentary film The Unconquered was made about Keller's life, which went on to win an Academy Award. A drama portraying Anne Sullivan's success in communicating with Helen as a child called The Miracle Worker appeared as a television play and on Broadway and went on to win critical acclaim.

As well as writing, Keller was a member of the Socialist Party of Massachusetts, US and spent years fundraising to improve life for blind and deaf people. From 1918, Keller extensively fundraised for the American Foundation for the Blind, not only collecting money, but campaigning tirelessly to alleviate the living and working conditions of blind people, who were badly educated and living in poor conditions. Her activism became a major factor in changing life for those with sensory loss.

After years of campaign work and literary success, in October 1961 Keller suffered the first of a series of strokes and her public life drew to a close. She spent her remaining years at her home in Easton, Connecticut, USA, and on 1 June, 1968, Keller died in her sleep. Her ashes were laid next to her dedicated teacher Sullivan and Polly Thomson, Keller's interpreter after Sullivan's death.

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