PROFILE: Helen Keller — One of the Most Influential American Female Activists

(ORIGINALLY PRINTED IN MARCH 2015 EDITION)

By JENNAFER CHLOE BOHNE Campus Press Writer and Columnist

Helen Adams Keller (June 27, 1880 – June 1, 1968), an American author, political activist, and world-famous lecturer, was the first hearing and sight challenged person to earn a bachelor of arts degree.

Helen (Adams) Keller, born June 27, 1880, is one of the most influential American female activists to this day, as well as lecturer and American author. She was a women of insight, despite her disadvantages and lack of conventional education, and moved people worldwide with her inspirational story and words of wisdom.

The Early Years…     Born both hearing and seeing, she began speaking at only ten months, understanding and participating in conversations with the cook’s daughter. However, at the age of nineteen months old she contracted an illness doctors described as “an acute congestion of the stomach and brain”.   Today this might have been diagnosed as scarlet fever or meningitis.  This illness left her deaf and blind, but as many of this time would have found this to be a tragedy, she would soon prove to be grateful of this incommodity.220px-Helen_Keller_with_Anne_Sullivan_in_July_1888.jpg

By the age of seven Helen had over 60 home signs she used to communicate with her family. Helen’s mother later sent her, accompanied by her father, in search of every doctor and specialist in the area in hope of finding a treatment for her “disability”. During this search, they were directed through Alexander Graham Bell, who at the time was working with deaf children, to a visually impaired Anne Sullivan, who would evolve from Helen’s teacher, to governess and eventually companion, staying with Helen for 49 years. _________________________________

  “Relationships are like Rome — difficult to start out, incredible during the prosperity of the ‘golden age’, and unbearable during the fall. Then, a new kingdom will come along and the whole process will repeat itself until you come across a kingdom like Egypt… that thrives, and continues to flourish. This kingdom will become your best friend, your soul mate, and your love.” — Helen Keller

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Keller Meets Inspirational Teacher, Anne Sullivan  When first meeting Helen, Sullivan had brought her a doll, which she used as a teaching mechanism, having her hold the doll in one hand and spelling “d-o-l-l” in her other hand. This gave them both much frustration as they struggled to reach each other through the dark. However, the month following the light bulb clicked while learning the motions for water with one hand, and running cool water over the other. This triggered Helen’s immense curiosity when she realized that each object had a unique word identifying it, and this curiosity grew as she demanded to know the motions for everything her hands could touch.

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  “We could never learn to be brave and patient if there were only joy in the world” — Helen Keller

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As she grew older she became more accustomed and comfortable with communicating, and eventually learned how to read braille, as well as to write and to speak, which she learned by placing her hand on Sullivan’s face and recognizing the different mouth shapes and vibrations. Shortly before WWI she had become determined to “listen” to music by placing her fingertips to a resonant tabletop and playing it close by.  Here’s a letter she wrote to the New York Symphony Orchestra in March of 1924 expressing her joy when listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony over the radio:

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Dear Friends:  I have the joy of being able to tell you that, though deaf and blind, I spent a glorious hour last night listening over the radio to Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony.” I do not mean to say that I “heard” the music in the sense that other people heard it; and I do not know whether I can make you understand how it was possible for me to derive pleasure from the symphony. It was a great surprise to myself.   I had been reading in my magazine for the blind of the happiness that the radio was bringing to the sightless everywhere. I was delighted to know that the blind had gained a new source of enjoyment; but I did not dream that I could have any part in their joy. Last night, when the family was listening to your wonderful rendering of the immortal symphony someone suggested that I put my hand on the receiver and see if I could get any of the vibrations. He unscrewed the cap, and I lightly touched the sensitive diaphragm. What was my amazement to discover that I could feel, not only the vibration, but also the impassioned rhythm, the throb and the urge of the music!   The intertwined and intermingling vibrations from different instruments enchanted me. I could actually distinguish the cornets, the roil of the drums, deep-toned violas and violins singing in exquisite unison. How the lovely speech of the violins flowed and plowed over the deepest tones of the other instruments! When the human voices leaped up thrilling from the surge of harmony, I recognized them instantly as voices more ecstatic, incurring swift and flame-like, until my heart almost stood still. The women’s voices seemed an embodiment of all the angelic voices rushing in a harmonious flood of beautiful and inspiring sound. The great chorus throbbed against my fingers with poignant pause and flow. Then all the instruments and voices together burst forth – an ocean of heavenly vibration – and died away like winds when theatom is spent, ending in a delicate shower of sweet notes.  Of course this was not “hearing,” but I do know that the tones and harmonies conveyed to me moods of great beauty and majesty. I also sense, or thought I did, the tender sounds of nature that sing into my hand-swaying reeds and winds and the murmur of streams. I have never been so enraptured before by a multitude of tone-vibrations.  As I listened, with darkness and melody, shadow and sound filling all the room, I could not help remembering that the great composer who poured forth such a flood of sweetness into the world was deaf like myself. I marveled at the power of his quenchless spirit by which out of his pain he wrought such joy for others – and there I sat, feeling with my hand the magnificent symphony which broke like a sea upon the silent shores of his soul and mine.

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“For three things I thank God every day of my life: thanks that he has vouchsafed me knowledge of his works; deep thanks that he has set in my darkness the lamp of faith; deep, deepest thanks that I have another life to look forward to–a life joyous with light and flowers and heavenly song.” — Helen Keller

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  Keller’s later year’s would prove highly prolific, as she went on to Radcliffe College, and graduated as the first deaf blind person with a Bachelor of the Arts degree. She also became a world famous advocate for social equality, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom (in 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson).

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