Helen Keller: A Woman Who Changed the World, One Word at a Time

by Kayla Hollis, age 12 

Born on June 27, 1880, Helen Keller has touched the hearts of millions with her resilience and strength in confronting her disabilities.

At six months, Keller made her first attempts at speech. However, by 19 months, she contracted an illness described by doctors as “acute congestion of the stomach and brain.” The disease left Keller unconscious. During her recovery, her parents came to the devastating realization that the illness had left Keller both deaf and blind.

Though Keller’s parents devised various ways to communicate with her, she became frustrated and began to behave poorly. At age seven, Keller went to Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, Massachusetts, where she was told that nothing could improve her sight. Despite Keller's blindness, staff at the Perkins Institute said she was very intelligent and could be educated.

To this end, Annie Sullivan, a young teacher, was sent to teach Keller how to speak, read, and write. Sullivan taught Keller the names of objects by spelling the letters of the objects' names on the palm of her hand. At first, Keller could not recognize the words or pair these movements to the concepts they described. But, one day when Sullivan put Keller’s hand under running water and spelled the word “water” on her other palm, Keller experienced a breakthrough.

This critical lesson spurred Keller's early memories of speech. Once this method helped Keller to develop a vocabulary, Sullivan introduced her to Braille. By 1883, Keller could read English, French, German, Greek, and Latin in Braille.

In March of 1890, Sarah Fuller, principal of the Horace Mann School for the deaf, started teaching Keller to speak. During these lessons, Keller would put her fingers in Fuller's mouth and feel her tongue as she spoke. This enabled Keller to understand how words were formed and to teach herself how to speak. In 1900, Keller began attending Radcliffe College, where she graduated in 1904. After Keller graduated, she continued to study on her own. While she was at Radcliffe, she also began to write. Eventually, three of her written works, The Story Of My Life, Optimism, and The World I Live In were published. Keller's works reached a much broader audience than the United States; in fact, her writings spread throughout 40 other countries. She also shared her work by traveling and speaking abroad.

In 1936, Sullivan, whose health had been declining, went into a coma and died. Although this ended the long friendship between Sullivan and Keller, Keller moved to Connecticut, where she received help from other assistants. However, the bond that the two women had shared could not be replaced.

Keller is and always will be remembered for her outstanding work and the progress she made despite the many obstacles that confronted and challenged her.

[Source: Women Who Changed the World]