Helen Keller began life in a world of silence and darkness but died after an immensely fruitful life knowing that her story had gone round the world, with her name and example bringing light to countless thousands of people handicapped like herself. Mark Twain was to call her one of the two most interesting characters of the 19th century the other being Napoleon.
She was born at Tuscumbia, Alabama, in June, 1880, the daughter of a newspaper editor. She was normal till the age of 19 months when an illness deprived her of sight and hearing. As she had previously only uttered childish exclamations, she was also, for all practical purposes, dumb.
She dwelt as she wrote later, in a “no-world,” without hope, anticipation and wonder, faith or joy. It was as if she was in the silence of a deep, dark pit. She was to compare herself in those early years with a ship groping its way in thick fog – only she, waiting for something to happen, had no way of knowing that harbours even existed.
Shortly after her seventh birthday, she was put in the care of Anne Sullivan, a girl whose sight had been partially restored by an operation. Helen was almost uncontrollable and was compared to an unruly animal, for she could not understand that words were related to things or even that words existed.
At first she was completely intractable but slowly Anne gained her confidence. One day Anne held Helen’s hand under a water-spout. Suddenly Helen connected the word “water” with the stream – and realised for the first time that things had names and that her key could be the manual alphabet.
Helen recalled, there was a strange stir within me – a misty consciousness, a sense of something remembered. It was as if I had come back to life after being dead. I understood that it was possible for me to communicate with other people with these signs.
Thoughts that ran forward and backward came to me quickly – thoughts that seemed to start in my brain and spread all over me… I felt joyous, strong, equal to my limitations.” Within a day she had learned from Anne, who was to become her lifelong friend and companion, some thirty words.
Helen learned to ‘see’ and eventually to speak by placing her hand against Anne’s face, the thumb on her throat and the fingers on her lips and nose.
As the teacher spoke the sounds of the alphabet, Helen felt the vibrations of the throat and the movements of the lips. She then repeated them. It was an accomplishment that took 20 years to perfect.
Helen wrote in later life, “a person who is severely impaired never knows his hidden sources of strength until he is treated like a normal human being and encouraged to shape his own mind.”
She also declared: “Fundamentally I have always felt that I was using five senses within me and that is why my life has been full and complete.” Books and articles poured from her pen but she found time for her favourite outdoor hobbies of swimming and horseback riding.
As she grew up Helen learned Braille, learned to write and type and became an outstanding scholar, memorizing lectures which were tapped into her hand by Anne and graduated at Radcliffe College in 1904.
She earned a BA at Harvard University not long after she had written her autobiography. Her examination papers, immaculately typed, were so brilliant that today they are preserved in the Harvard museum.
She was an expert at languages and spoke and translated French and German.
She became a keen classic scholar, made her own translation of Horace’s Odes from the Latin and said of her studies in Greek literature, “if the violin is the most perfect musical instrument, then Greek is the violin of human thought.”
Helen became financially well off but devoted a lifetime of service from her teenage days to helping the blind and the deaf. She concerned herself with many organisations and through her personal efforts raised $2 million for the work of the American Foundations for the Blind.
She met dozens of statesmen and leading world figures and a notable play and film “The Miracle Worker,” woven round the lives of Helen and Anne, was a world success in the early sixties.
She addressed a distinguished audience in French at the Sorbonne and at the age of seventy, was given high praise for making better translation of an African Bantu language than most white people could ever achieve.
It was often said during her lifetime that she must have possessed abnormal faculties which more than compensated for her deafness and blindness. Indeed, one noted British medical man declared that she could “see” colours with her fingertips. But a specialist who examined her left it on record that she possessed no abnormal faculties, but made far more effective use of those she possessed than ordinary people.
Nevertheless her ability to draw on resources which others ignore gave her remarkable powers. If taken for a drive in the country, and being told nothing of the scenery she could describe what sort of countryside it was, when they were passing buildings and sometimes what the buildings were.
She could instantly “read” the faces of those she met by touching their faces and hands. She was especially sensitive to handshakes and was an infallible judge of background and character from the impression they made. She could even accurately distinguish people’s accents by touching two or three spots on their throats as they spoke.
She could distinguish between flowers by touch. She could feel sounds through both hands and feet. She could feel music-waves from an orchestra, enabling her to dance in perfect time, as she did with blind soldiers in hospitals after World War II.
When an orchestra was playing on the radio, she could distinguish the different instruments by resting her fingers lightly on the table and was even able to recognise, unheard, at least one Beethoven symphony.
Sitting in a hotel lounge, she liked to assess the character and personality of passersby through their manner of walking.
Her sense of smell was another means of overcoming her handicaps. It was so acute that she could distinguish plants, identify the work people were doing and her whereabouts in a strange city and, in walking past churches, she knew whether they were Catholic or Protestant.
Helen Keller – described by H.G. Wells as “the most wonderful human being in America” was a woman of high spirits, physical adventurousness and immense mental energy.
Long before her death in June 1968 she was honoured all over the world.