Imagine the world opening up to you. You suddenly realize that blurry visions have become clear. You have these things other people call hands and arms and legs and feet although you can’t really make them do anything. Then suddenly you learn to sit up and crawl and stumble and walk. The world is a brand new place for exploring and life is exciting. You realize you can make sounds that piece together and slowly words begin to form. The world is yours and people respond to me. Life is beautiful and until you contract a cold. Suddenly the world is dark and you are living in a vacuum without light or sound.
At age nineteen months, Helen Adams Keller contracted a fever and lost both her vision and hearing. The six-year-old daughter of the family cook understood Helen and by age seven Helen and her family could communicate with a series of approximately sixty different signs.
Helen Keller was born in an area of northwest Alabama known as the Shoals in a town called Tuscumbia in a house that stands today. Ivy Green, Keller’s birthplace hosts an annual festival each year in honor of Helen Keller and her teacher, mentor, and companion Annie Sullivan.
Johanna Mansfield Sullivan was born in Agawam, Massachusetts. She contracted an infection of the eye that left her blind and Johanna or Annie as she was called therefore had no writing or reading skills. When she was eight years old her mother died and two years later her father abandoned the family, overwhelmed by the responsibility of raising his children alone.
Annie and her younger brother were sent to an almshouse in Tewksbury but her brother later died. Annie stayed at the facility for four plus years and received several operations that gave her minor sight but then obtained permission to attend the Perkins School for the Blind. It was there that she learned to read and write.
As valedictorian of her graduating class, Annie Sullivan said: “”Fellow-graduates: duty bids us go forth into active life. Let us go cheerfully, hopefully, and earnestly, and set ourselves to find our especial part. When we have found it, willingly and faithfully perform it.”
Annie Sullivan was recommended for the position of tutor to Helen Keller and arrived at Ivy Green in 1887. A staunch supporter of the Union troops in the recent War Between the States, Annie constantly argued with Helen’s parents. She instigated a strict training regimen for Helen which was not successful. She then began teaching Helen based upon the girl’s interests. Success seemed impossible until one day her perseverance paid off. Helen realized that the word Annie Sullivan spelled with her fingers in her palm correlated to the water running from the pump.
Within six month Helen Keller had learned Braille, some multiplication tables and almost six hundred words. Annie Sullivan convinced her parents to send Helen to the Perkins School that she herself had attended. She accompanied Helen to the Perkins School and later to Radcliffe College from which Helen Keller graduated.
The two would travel the world advocating for the rights of the disabled and offer encouragement and motivation to those who felt handicapped. By 1935 Annie Sullivan’s eyesight rendered her blind herself. She passed away in 1936. Helen Keller continued to serve as a role model and speaker until her own death in 1968.
Anyone thinking that a girl who could neither see nor hear could be an advocate never met Helen Keller. She learned to speak by placing her fingers on Annie Sullivan’s nose, mouth, and larynx and then imitating what she felt. She campaigned for women’s rights and was an avid birth control supporter. In 1920 she helped found the American Civil Liberties Union. Together with Annie Sullivan she traveled to over forty countries and wrote twelve books plus numerous articles.
Helen Keller was not shy about speaking her mind. “The few own the many because they possess the means of livelihood of all … The country is governed for the richest, for the corporations, the bankers, the land speculators, and for the exploiters of labor. The majority of mankind are working people. So long as their fair demands—the ownership and control of their livelihoods—are set at naught, we can have neither men’s rights nor women’s rights. The majority of mankind is ground down by industrial oppression in order that the small remnant may live in ease.”
Nothing would have ever been accomplished if Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan had not persevered and been patience with the process their learning and success required. They could not do things just like everyone else but that did not stop them. Both women were cremated and their ashes were interred in a memorial at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., Annie Sullivan being the first woman to have this honor.
The story of both of these women has been written and portrayed on the small screen, the movie screen, and the stage numerous times and won countless awards for the actors portraying them. The real take-away from their life stories, however, is that they never gave up when times got hard. They never compared themselves to the average person but found their uniqueness a path for success. In doing this, they created success, inventing a life for themselves that far exceeded anything they could have imagined. They did not thrive in spite of their differences but because of them.