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Overcoming Obstacles: How Helen Keller Made a Difference

This is one in a series of profiles on famous people who overcame incredible obstacles, failed many times or defied grim odds in order to succeed.

On June 27, 1880 Helen Keller was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama, with her senses intact. It wasn’t until she was 18 months old that she was stricken with a mysterious illness that robbed her of sight and sound.

While she found ways to communicate with her parents, Arthur H. Keller and Kate Adams Keller, as well as her friend and the child of the Keller’s cook, Martha Washington, Helen was prone to outbursts when she was not understood.

The outbursts grew in frequency and, when Helen was six years old, she and her father paid a visit to a distinguished oculist in Baltimore, who had been successful in rectifying similar cases. While nothing could be done for Helen’s eyes,  Arthur Keller was advised to consult Dr. Alexander Graham Bell. Helen and her father left immediately for Washington, D.C., in search of Bell. Helen admired Bell immediately. He understood her crude signs, and their initial interview would lead to friendship, companionship, and a love that would compel Helen to dedicate her eventual autobiography, The Story of my Life, to Bell.

Bell advised Arthur Keller to write to the director of the Perkins Institution for the blind in Boston to inquire if they could recommend a qualified teacher to educate Helen. This communication resulted in, what Helen considers, the most important day of her life. Anne Mansfield Sullivan arrived at the Keller household three months before Helen turned seven years old. Within six months of her arrival in Tuscumbia, Sullivan taught Helen hundreds of vocabulary words, using the manual alphabet, multiplication, and Braille.

In 1890, when Helen was nine years old, she learned of a deaf and blind girl in Norway who was taught how to speak. Determined to learn as well, Helen and Sullivan ventured to the Horace Mann School for the Deaf in Boston to consult the principal, Sarah Fuller. Fuller began instructing Helen at once. Passing Helen’s hand lightly over her face, Fuller would let her feel the position of her tongue and lips when she made a sound. Helen then imitated every motion and, in an hour, she had learned six elements of speech. On returning home, Sullivan tirelessly took over as Helen’s speech instructor.

Sullivan eventually followed Helen to the Perkins School, where she began receiving a formal education, and even to Radcliffe College where Helen earned her degree. Sullivan was a loyal teacher and companion until the day she died in 1936.

Helen Keller went on to become a world-famous speaker and author, an advocate for people with disabilities, and an active member of the socialist party. 

Trials:

  • In The Story of my Life, Helen Keller explains, “One who is entirely dependent on the manual alphabet has always a sense of restraint, of narrowness. This feeling began to agitate me with a vexing, forward-reaching sense of a lack that should be filled.” This feeling isn’t synonymous with Helen Keller; I feel this way when I sense that I am not reaching my full potential or when I crave an adventure or life change. Keller teaches us to be careful not to let our handicaps, or anything else, limit us.
  •  Keller believed that the administrative board of Radcliffe did not realize how difficult they were making her examinations, nor understand the peculiar difficulties she had to overcome. “But if they unintentionally placed obstacles in my way, I have the consolation of knowing that I overcame them all.” Those with unintentional ignorance make burdens more difficult. Keller reminds us that the only person we are in control of is ourselves, and it is up to us to accomplish our goals.
  • While she met many famous people and became good friends with Alexander Graham Bell and Mark Twain, not everyone supported her. After repeatedly proving her intelligence, some criticized Keller by calling attention to her disabilities, after she expressed her socialist views. The Brooklyn Eagle newspaper once wrote that her “mistakes sprung out of the manifest limitations of her development.”

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Accomplishments:

  • Helen learned to speak in 1890, at nine years old. This is something that many people with the ability to hear may take for granted but how amazing is it that she learned to speak?! Think about trying to modify what you’re saying until it’s meaningful when you can’t hear yourself. Keller shared that the “impulse to utter audible sounds had always been strong within me. I used to make noises, keeping one hand on my throat while the other hand felt the movements of my lips. I was pleased with anything that made a noise, and liked to feel the cat purr and the dog bark.”
  • An alumna of Radcliffe College, she became the first blind/deaf person to earn a Bachelors of Art degree.
  • She learned German, French, and Latin
  • She penned her autobiography, The Story of my Life
  • In 1915, she founded Helen Keller International, an organization dedicated to eradicating preventable blindness by providing health and nutrition education as well as free vision screenings and prescription eyeglasses to students living in poverty in the United States.
  • In 1920, she helped found the American Civil Liberties Union, committed “to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties that the Constitution and laws of the United States guarantee everyone in this country.”

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Lessons:

  • It is okay to need other people. Keller confessed, “My teacher is so near to me that I scarcely think of myself apart from her. How much of my delight in all beautiful things is innate, and how much is due to her influence, I can never tell. I feel that her being is inseparable from my own, and that the footsteps of my life are in hers. All the best of me belongs to her–there is not a talent, or an aspiration or a joy in me that has not been awakened by her loving touch.”
  • Embrace your differences. One way to do that is to use what your differences have taught you, to help others. Keller did this through the various foundations that she spearheaded as well as through her political contributions.
  • The importance of community. Upon arriving at the Perkins Institution for the Blind, Helen made friends with other blind children. She was surprised and thrilled that they knew the manual alphabet and was overjoyed at her ability to communicate with others her age.
  • Helen Keller appreciated art as much as anyone else, sharing that, “Museums and art stores are also sources of pleasure and inspiration. Doubtless it will seem strange to many that the hand unaided by sight can feel action, sentiment, beauty in the cold marble; and yet it is true that I derive genuine pleasure from touching great works of art.” While your approach may be different from others, your accomplishments will  be evident.

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Have you been met with obstacles that Helen Keller inspired you to overcome? Whether you simply read them now or print them out and tape them to your desk, let these printable Helen Keller quotes motivate you to pursue greatness.

 


Image Credit – Helen Keller via Wikimedia Commons

 

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Sarah Mills

Sarah Mills

Sarah Mills is a contributing writer for Learning Liftoff. She mentored and instructed kindergarten through high school-aged students throughout her college years and eventually went on to live and work in Yosemite National Park for a stint. Reading, writing, adventuring, and anything Harry Potter are some of Sarah’s favorite go-to activities.

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