Friday, June 27, 2014

My Musings on Helen Keller

I have met people who have heard about Helen Keller often and from different angles.  Helen has shared plenty of inspiring and thoughtful quotes, yet a quote or two may rub people the wrong way and be open to debate.  A couple of people I know can't stand her.  I can see how that can happen.  Two cents from me: 
Helen Keller poses with four young schoolchildren.
Photo source:  American Foundation of the Blind,

1) Helen has done more than being a Deafblind person who didn't let her physical absence of vision and hearing stop her.  You know those inspirational posters with quotes? I recall one that read, "Extraordinary: Ordinary people in extraordinary situations."  This is why many people are fascinated with Helen Keller; that's the beginning of it, yes, just do not stop there.  She did things for people that you would not expect a deafblind person to go out of their way to do back during her day when they had their own barriers.  Her extraordinary situation was just right for her.

2) Helen is not the only Deafblind person we should emulate.  There are modern-day Deafblind individuals who inspire others.  I hope to introduce them to you soon, as well as to my children.  Especially Orion.  If you're reading this and are Deafblind, and thinking maybe I'm talking about you... I am.  I am not going to encourage Orion to be like Helen ("Be Like Mike") even though he will learn of her story one day.  I will, though, encourage him to be Orion Theodore Withrow.

I'm starting with Helen Adams Keller.  Today, June 27th, is her birthday, born 134 years ago. 

A very young Helen with a dog on her lap.

My Sources

I have not read all the books out there on Helen Keller, nor have I read a book written by herself, but I would recommend two books I've read thus far.

The first book was one I borrowed from the local library in good ol' Bothell, Washington, titled "Helen Keller: Rebellious Spirit", by Laurie Lawlor.  It was this book I learned more about Helen throughout her life, Anne's possessiveness of her and Anne's successors. Much of, if not all of what I shared here in my post is from my memory reading this book.

The latest and I think the coolest book of all I have read was borrowed from the local Austin Public Library branch is Center for Cartoon Studies Presents, "Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller", by Joseph Lambert.  Disney-Hyperion Books, New York, 2012.  This was in a fun illustrated comic book format covering Helen from around the time of Anne's arrival in Alabama to their departure from Perkins School for the Blind.  The illustrator portrayed visually, perhaps toward the abstract, how Helen must have perceived her experiences before and during language development. His idea for visual presentation was surprising and fascinating to me. I blogged about it here, Concept Building and the Coolest Book on Helen Keller Out There

Helen Keller trivia from the top of my head: 

Did you know that Helen Keller was born with sight and hearing?  She lost both due to an illness during her 2nd year of life (approximately 15-18 months old).  However she did not remember the experience of seeing or hearing. I've known of this fact for a long time.  When Orion was an infant, I mused that Helen was seeing and hearing during that age.  Since typical children learn to walk anytime from before their first birthday to around 18 months old, Helen must have been walking before she became deafblind.  There may be other skills she developed during her time with sight.  Orion, born completely deaf and very little light perception, is taking the longer road figuring out what those two long, flexible, fleshy soft-on-the-outside, hard-on-the-inside extensions of him are for.  The point is, they're both deafblind but come from two completely different etiologies thus different developmental and emotional progresses.   

Helen's father owned or ran a newspaper publication in their hometown.  He included pieces on Helen, this led to her being a news sensation spreading all over our country.  You can say this was a Blog of the 1880's.  The very first Deafblind "Blog"!
A very young Helen, her doll and Anne Sullivan.

Yes, Helen's family was well-to-do, how else would they have hired Anne Sullivan when Helen was 6 years old?  Anne was with Helen all the time.  Helen has Anne to thank for connecting her to the world and so on.  Even though we must not think this is the only way, can you imagine what it'd be like for someone to work constantly through the days and weeks exposing your Deafblind child to planned/unplanned learning and tactile sign language?  

Helen, however, was not the first Deafblind student in the United States.  It was Laura Bridgman.  Laura Bridgman attended the Perkins School for the Blind, where eventually Helen's teacher, Anne Sullivan went to school beginning in her youth.  You can say the instructional strategies used with Bridgman were in place waiting for Helen when she and Annie came to Perkins after years in Alabama.  Helen did meet the elder Laura Bridgman. 

If I recall correctly from Laurie Lawlor's book, "Helen Keller: Rebellious Spirit", Helen briefly went to a deaf school, perhaps in New York.  She was able to use tactile sign language with other deaf students.

Several things come to mind based on learning about Helen's brief deaf school experience.  Did Helen Keller have any Deaf friends or acquaintances outside of this school?  Did she know where to find them?  Did Deaf or Deafblind people feel comfortable approaching Helen?  These questions make me also muse about her motivation to speak.  Is it because she has always been around new hearing people who didn't know signs and speaking for herself she could provide a more direct connection to them?  Was the news on her speaking, or using the TADOMA method (Google it) intimidating for Deaf and/or Deafblind individuals?  An assumption that she was not interested in meeting them?

1880: A Dark Year for Sign Language, Worldwide

Now, going on a tangent from this tangent.  In Milan, Italy, 1880, the same year Helen was born, the International Congress on Education of the Deaf (ICED) passed a resolution to prohibit sign language from being used in the education of deaf students.  As I have learned through the years, Deaf teachers of the Deaf (at least those in America) lost their jobs because they were not able to speak, thus not in compliance with the then latest invention of the wheel. (This wheel kept getting unnecessary attempted makeovers even to this day!  The idea is "whatever works". ) This went on for scores of years until around mid-century, Deaf teachers of the Deaf started trickling back into the classrooms.  

In Vancouver, BC, Canada, July 2010, the 21st International Congress on Education for the Deaf took place.  The Congress voted to pass a resolution ( to formally regret and reject the resolutions that were passed 130 years ago in 1880.  One line I plucked from the statement we all need to keep in mind: 

"...Call upon all Nations of the world to remember history and ensure that educational programmes accept and respect all languages and all forms of communication."

So now you know a little more about the world Helen was born into. Back to Ms. Keller...

The financial support from Helen's family dwindled and disappeared sometime after Helen and Anne left Alabama.  The duo were fortunately sponsored by other people who cared about them.  An example of a fund source was going onto a stage where people pay admission to see and perhaps to hear Helen speak.  Whoever was with Helen (Annie or her successor), repeated to the audience what Helen spoke.

So many people knew about Helen Keller and she was fortunate to have met famous individuals, including several Presidents of the United States and Alexander Graham Bell (AGB).  It is very interesting to note, while AGB opposed deaf intermarriage and strongly promoted choosing only spoken language for the Deaf, he is seen in a photo in Laurie Lawlor' book spelling into Helen's hands.  I don't know if he was drawing letters or using the British or American sign language alphabet.
Helen and Alexander Graham Bell communicating tactually as 3 other individuals look on.

Helen asked the Lions Club to look out for the blind and deafblind. 

1925: Eradicating Blindness 

"Helen Keller addressed the Lions Clubs International Convention in Cedar Point, Ohio, USA, and challenged Lions to become "knights of the blind in the crusade against darkness." Since then, we have worked tirelessly to aid the blind and visually impaired."  

(Source: Lion's Clubs International website, Retrieved online November 27, 2012.)

Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan lay in eternal rest in a gated crypt at the Washington National Cathedral, in Washington D.C.  I visited the site while I was a Gallaudet student.  Way before hubby and kids.

Helen Keller Quotes

Helen strikes me as an eternal optimist.  Eternal optimists get up again and keep pushing on even in unfavorable conditions.  

"When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us."  

In this quote by Helen, she is aware of the opportunities that sprout from just moving on.  

"Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it."
 A realistic yet optimistic quote by her.

If I left you somewhat curious- great!  Check out a book on Helen Keller, especially the two I recommended.

Helen Keller quotes were from, Helen Keller (1880-1968), Retrieved online November 27, 2012.


  1. Enjoyed reading your 'musings'. I work as an intervener in Michigan. Your perspective is so valuable. Thank you for sharing.
    Brenda Bujold

    1. Thanks, Brenda! I'm glad you enjoyed my musings.

  2. Hi there! I'm Heather and I wanted to know if you would be willing to answer my quick question about your blog! Please email me at Lifesabanquet1(at)gmail(dot)com :-)

  3. Good blog. Agree that despite not remembering hearing or seeing the fact that she had that time gave her a huge advantage during some formative times of brain development to blossom.

    Getting upset about her opinions is funny to me- I haven't read nearly as much as you on her yet but I picture a child who was a late communicator and who had very limited access to learn about the world- mostly through the few people that came into her life and worked with her and what they helped expose her to. Just the point that she got there in a time where education for DeafBlind, accommodations, and technology were very limited to be able to express opinions in such eloquent language is amazing to me.

    I also find it ironic that Alexander Graham Bell was one of her connection points to Perkins and they obviously interacted at various points in her life and yet he was such a proponent for oral language advocacy back then- knowing Helen should have been case and point an example of why oral language alone wouldn't work for everyone. I think times were very different then and oral was on a higher pedestal because there was very little accomodation that existed. You couldn't go to a doctors office and expect the doctor to provide an interpreter if you were struggling to communicate, etc, so there was more of an oral conformity expectation at that time but sadly in many ways there are still lots of people that follow this logic that everyone needs to conform to one standard rather than trying to communicate in anyway we can and hoping eventually we find what works best for that individual.

    Orion now will have so much more access to technology, thru computers and cell phones it is ultimately possible that he will one day be able to communicate with anyone anywhere in the world he wants to be rather than limited to communicating thru specific people and greatly influenced by them. Advent of wearable technology like the possibilities of smart watch (think of the capabilities for communication just having the tactile buzzing from a smart watch could bring). You are able to connect to other support parents groups, etc and access to deliver whatever book you want to read on the topic of Deaf blind education you would like to help him as he learns to communicate. There is also so much more support legally required now of others. Google smart cars may allow him complete independence some day and on and on how times are different.

    So just in Aww of what she was able to accomplish in a time before that existed, money may have helped her family be able to make more connections that would have been impossible before that time but I think Helen Keller and her publicity helped pave the way of people understanding that if you found a way to reach deaf blind children that they could one day be able to express themselves and communicate and it was worth taking the time and investing the resources(for lack of better words).

  4. I also would add, from my perspective, as a Mom of a deaf daughter who is also legally blind, I had 0 exposure to either world 2.5 years ago... So early on I had professionals tell me things that were frankly bad advice (specifically regarding oral education) but if I hadn't been of a certain personality to seek other resources and read and learn as much as I can then the trajectory of my daughter's life would have strongly be influenced by the professionals we came across. Nobody was in a hurry, I would have been bounced around a system where the expectation was you can just give her a cochlear and fix things when in reality my daughter was missing her cochlear nerves and we would have lost a lot of critical time not signing and communicating with her if I had followed some of this advice. There was quite frankly bad advice from so many individuals on all sides of the issue but our thoughts are a product of a lot of different individuals who influenced US over a course of a lifetime and whatever additional learning we seek out.

    So, even as an adult I look at it as we are still learning, many of the opinions I had before 2.5 years ago came from total lack of exposure. My eyes have been open on so many levels in 2.5 years and I consider myself to still not likely be 100% right and therefore try not to profess to be to other parents I come across because I still have a lot to learn on a lot of different topics in this world where I have limited or single sided exposure.

    So that is why I find it ironic to hold her opinions against her, we are all a product of exposure and our own experience influences who we are and I am pretty sure nobody is perfect or has all the right answers but Helen Keller and the people around her were well ahead of the time in being on the forefront of proving that you need to try something to reach all children because just not being able to see or hear doesn't mean they aren't capable individuals.

  5. Personally I like this author very much. Also I like Helen Keller quotations. Thanks for sharing!


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