Helen Keller (1880–1968)

Portrait of Helen Keller, in formal dress, smelling a flower, and with a hand resting on a book in braille.
Helen Adams Keller / By Charles Whitman / Platinum print, 1904 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Most famous for her personal triumph over the limitations of both blindness and deafness, Helen Keller was one of the twentieth century’s leading advocates for individuals with disabilities. Born in Alabama in 1880, she was left both blind and deaf at nineteen months as a result of what the doctors then called “brain fever” (probably scarlet fever). As a small child, she was viewed as unteachable and left to run wild, her inability to communicate prompting frequent rages. Reading of the Perkins School for the Blind’s success with another deaf-blind girl, her parents ultimately asked the school to send Helen a teacher. Twenty-year-old Anne Sullivan, herself partially blind, arrived at the Kellers’ plantation in March 1887. Sullivan’s first goal was to get Keller to understand the connection between words (which she signed into Keller’s hand using a manual alphabet) and their meaning. After a month of struggle, a breakthrough came at the water pump. By that summer, Keller had learned the entire alphabet and was writing her first letter, to her mother.

Keller’s remarkable progress did not stop there. With Sullivan as her tutor and companion, she furthered her education at various northern schools, learning to read braille and mastering the art of manual lip reading. She enrolled in Radcliffe College in 1900 and graduated cum laude in 1904, having taken the same exams as every other student and written a best-selling autobiography along the way. She then launched into a lifelong career as author and lecturer, raising awareness and money for a variety of often-controversial causes, including women’s suffrage, pacifism, the labor movement, and socialism. In 1924, she became the official spokeswoman for the newly formed American Federation for the Blind; she would serve in this role for the rest of her life. Keller’s work helped profoundly alter the public’s perceptions about the capabilities and worth of individuals with disabilities.

This image of Keller appeared as the frontispiece for her article in Century magazine in January 1905. Entitled “A Chat about the Hand,” the piece focused on how Keller used her sense of touch to understand and communicate with her world. “Paradise,” she declared in the first paragraph, “is attained by touch; for in touch all is love and intelligence.” Underscoring the importance of touch for Keller is the book written in braille on her lap.

Learning to Look

  1. Describe the objects that surround Keller in this photograph. Why do you think the photographer chose to include them? What do these objects tell us about Keller?

  2. This photograph appeared as an illustration to an article by Keller called “A Chat about the Hand.” What is she using her hands to do in this photograph? Based on what you know about Helen Keller, why would her hands have been so important to the way she experienced the world?

     

Activity

Imagine that you are the curator of an exhibition on Helen Keller’s life and legacy. First, list the various stages of her life (for example, childhood, education, career, impact) that you will need to include in order to tell her story. Then think about how you will tell that story through images and objects. What sorts of pictures and artifacts will you include? Once you have generated that list, sketch out a layout plan for the exhibition, giving consideration to the question of which parts of her story require more space and attention than others.