Who was Helen Keller?

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

She was born on 27 June 1880 in Tuscumbia, a small rural town in Alabama, USA and in 1882 became ill from what’s now thought to have been scarlet fever or meningitis, an illness which left her both deaf and blind.

When Helen was six, her mother visited the scientist Alexander Graham Bell, who worked with deaf children, he suggested Helen’s family contact Michael Anagnos, the director of the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts Asylum for the Blind. Following a meeting with Michael Anagnos, Helen was assigned a partially sighted teacher named Anne Sullivan who started communicating with Helen by spelling words on her hand, but with limited success.

After a few months of work, Anne made a breakthrough. While leading Helen to a water pump, she held one of Helen's hands under the running water and wrote 'water' on Helen's other hand. It triggered a reaction in Helen, which led to her making the connection between the shapes Anne made on her hand to the objects around her. It wasn't long before Helen was able to read and write using raised letters and eventually braille. Helen 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 Helen 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 (1955).

Deliverance, a film based on Helen's life, was made in Hollywood in 1919, Helen did not like the film and was unhappy with the way it glamorised events. In 1953 a documentary The Unconquered was made about Helen's life and won an Academy Award. The Miracle Worker, portraying Anne Sullivan's success in communicating with Helen as a child, was produced as a television drama and Broadway play and went on to win critical acclaim.

As well as being a successful writer, Helen was an active member of the Socialist Party of Massachusetts, USA and spent years fundraising to improve life for blind and deaf people. From 1918, she extensively fundraised for the American Foundation for the Blind, collecting money and 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 the lives of those with sensory loss.

In October 1961 Helen suffered the first of a series of strokes and her public life drew to a close. She spent her remaining years at home in Easton, Connecticut, USA.  Helen died in her sleep on 1 June 1968 and her ashes were laid to rest next to her dedicated teacher Anne Sullivan and her interpreter Polly Thomson.

Did this answer your question?

Your feedback will help us to keep improving this website.

Make a donation

Right now we can only reach one in three of the people who need our help most.

Please make a donation and help us support more blind and partially sighted people.

Regular donation Single donation