These are dark times, tainted by devilish acts, smeared by shadows of immorality, pricked by vices becoming more common than ever before.
And this is the time when we require to fall back on those times when light stemmed from darkness when a person who could not see “showed” us the way.
Such a person was Helen Keller, the first deaf-blind person in the world to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree.
Her life and deeds are nothing short of inspirational. Born on June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbia, Alabama to Kate Adams and Arthur H. Keller, who was an editor of for the Tuscumbia North Alabamian, and an ex-captain of the Confederate Army, Helen was a healthy baby. When she was 19 months old, she contracted a mysterious illness, undiagnosed at that time but later thought to have been either scarlet fever or meningitis that saw her lose her hearing, voice, and eyesight.
Deaf, blind and mute, the little girl was unable to make sense of her surroundings and soon became a feral child, roaming in the woods, and creating havoc in the household. By the age of 6, she did have the ability to communicate approximately 60 words to her family but was mostly directionless. There was a pressure from relatives on her parents to get her institutionalized. Not one to give up on her, Helen’s mother, looking for ideas and inspiration, sent her with her father to a leading physician, who, in turn, directed her to Alexander Graham Bell, who examined her. As a result, he sent to her a 20-year-old teacher, Anne Sullivan (Macy) from the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston. Sullivan, a remarkable teacher, remained with Keller from March 1887 until her death in October 1936, chalking a 49-year long friendship and companionship.
When Anne arrived at the Keller’s house in 1887, she gifted a doll to Helen. The first thing she did was to spell out the words ‘d-o-l-l’ into Helen’s hand. Helen was frustrated and defiant in the beginning but, for nearly a month, Anne constantly spelled words for Helen. Finally, there came a breakthrough, when with her hands under running water and her teacher outlining words into her palm, it dawned upon Helen that this motion symbolized ‘water’. This realization opened up the world for little Helen and she soon discovered, with wonder and awe, that everything had a word uniquely identifying it. Her thirst for learning new words became unquenchable, and she constantly asked Sullivan to spell words for all things she would lay her hands on.
Her senses sharpened as she grew and soon Keller had learned to feel objects and associate them with words spelled out by finger signals on her palm, to read sentences by feeling raised words on cardboard, and to make her own sentences by arranging words in a frame.
In 1890, Helen began her formal education at the Horace Mann School for the deaf in Boston. She also started to try speech, an effort she would continuously keep at for 25 years.
Tenacious and driven, Helen was determined to start college as well. In 1896, she attended the Cambridge School for Young Ladies, a preparatory school for women. All this time, Anne was always by her side, her future marriage hitting the rocks, because of her devotion to Helen.
By the age of 21, Helen’s story had gotten the fame it deserved, and soon she was given a scholarship to attend Radcliffe College. She attended classes accompanied by Sullivan who would interpret the lectures for her. By this time, she had mastered several methods of communication, including touch-lip reading, Braille, speech, typing, and finger-spelling. It was during this time that she penned her first book The Story of My Life, an account of her transformation from childhood to a 21-year-old college student. Keller graduated, cum laude, from Radcliffe in 1904, at the age of 24.
After college, she stepped into Social activism, with a view to improving the lives of others. Over her lifetime, she supported and fought for a number of social causes, the notable among them being women’s rights, birth control and welfare of blind people. In 1915, she co-founded the Hellen Keller International to help stop blindness due to malnutrition.
In 1936, Helen’s constant companion and friend, Anne Sullivan died. A young woman Polly Thomson became Helen’s companion and stayed with her till Helen’s death.
In 1946, her humanitarian efforts saw her being appointed counsellor of international relations for the American Foundation of Overseas Blind. Between 1946 and 1957, she travelled to 35 countries on five continents, inspiring the world with her story, grit, and passion.
In 1961, Helen suffered a number of strokes and spent the remaining years of her life at her home in Connecticut. She died in her sleep on June 1, 1986, at the cusp of her 88th birthday.
A remarkable life had ended. A life that symbolizes the power of the human spirit over misfortune. A life that should serve as a reminder that giving up is sometimes not an option, a life that inspires us to rise over our personal circumstances and do well for the world. Helen Keller was indeed a symbol of triumph over adversity and her birth date, June 27, is a day for celebrating her undying spirit of determination, kindness, and strength.