Inspiring Purpose

Helen Keller

Helen Adams Keller was born on 27 June 1880 in Tuscumbia, in Northwest Alabama, USA. The daughter of Captain Arthur Henley Keller and Kate Adams Keller she was born with full sight and hearing. In February 1882, when Helen was nineteen months old, she fell ill. To this day the nature of her ailment remains a mystery. The doctors of the time called it "brain fever", whilst modern day doctors think it may have been scarlet fever or meningitis.

Whatever the illness, Helen was, for many days, expected to die. When, eventually, the fever subsided, it became apparent that Helen's illness had left her both blind and deaf. Helen became a very difficult child, smashing dishes and lamps and terrorising the whole household with her screaming and temper tantrums. In despair, her mother took Helen, now six to visit Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, who recommended a teacher, Anne Sullivan who had been almost blind from the age of five. It became clear to her teacher that Helen's problem cantered on her inability to realise the significance of the "words" which Anne was spelling out to her. After a month of no apparent progress, Anne Sullivan achieved a "miracle".

In Helen's own words, "We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honey-suckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word "water", first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten, a thrill of returning thought, and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me".

Helen's progress from then on was astonishing, although her speech never improved beyond the sounds that only Anne and others very close to her could understand. With Anne's support, Helen moved on to the Cambridge School for Young Ladies in 1896 and in the Autumn of 1900 entered Radcliffe College becoming, the first deafblind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree.

Helen and Anne devoted themselves to raising money for the blind by means of world-wide lecture tours and vaudeville appearances. After Anne's death in 1936, Helen continued her work on behalf of the American Foundation for the Overseas Blind, with the help of her secretary, Polly Thomson. She not only collected money, but also campaigned tirelessly to alleviate the living and working conditions of blind people, who at that time were usually badly educated and living in asylums. Her endeavours were a major factor in changing these conditions.

In 1953 a documentary film "The Unconquered" was made about Helen's life, this was to win an Academy Award as the best feature length documentary. It was at this time that Helen began work again on her book Teacher, some seven years after the original had been destroyed. The book was finally published in 1955.
In 1957 "The Miracle Worker" was first performed. A drama portraying Anne Sullivan's first success in communicating with Helen as a child, it first appeared as a live television play in the United States. In 1959 it was re-written as a Broadway play and opened to rave reviews. It became a smash hit and ran for almost two years. In 1962 it was made into a film and the actresses playing Anne and Helen both received Oscars for their performances.

In 1964 Helen was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award, by President Lyndon Johnson. A year later she was elected to the Women's Hall of Fame at the New York World's Fair. On June 1, 1968 Helen Keller died peacefully in her sleep.

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Inspiring Purpose is a program developed by Character Education Scotland www.character-scotland.org.uk
Registered charity in Scotland: number SC040962 and a company limited by guarantee and registered in Scotland number 365627.
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