You might have heard her name before. I am relatively certain you have but I am guessing that you heard about her in the same way I was taught about Helen Keller, almost as an accessory to her teacher’s story.
I am so excited to get to introduce all of you to a woman that until I began researching I only knew as a brave disabled woman who inspired by her willingness to learn. There is so much more!
Helen was born in 1880 in Alabama a very healthy little girl who even started speaking at six months old. When she was just under two years old an illness left her blind and deaf. The illness has not been identified except to call it brain fever.
Helen, against the popular idea that she lived in complete isolation, had a friend and brothers and sisters. She and the daughter of the family cook, Martha Washington, were playmates who developed a type of sign language when she was seven years old. The invented a language with around sixty signs.
It was not ideal though and Helen had become very difficult to be around. She would throw epic temper tantrums kicking, yelling, and raging. Many of the family’s friends and acquaintances believed that Helen should be placed in an institution for her and the family’s own good.
Helen’s mother came across an article written by none other than Charles Dickens (we will have an episode on him I promise and near the Holidays please look up Neil Gaiman reading a Christmas Carol). The article mentioned a teacher by name who had had success teaching another deaf and blind child, Laura Bridgman. This here becomes a who is who of the time. Helen was referred to Alexander Graham Bell who was working with deaf children at the the time (yes, the inventor of the telephone). I promise you there will be much name dropping in this episode. Helen became great friends with many people you might recognize.
At the Perkins Institute for the Blind the director felt that one of the most recent graduates would be best for Helen, Anne Sullivan began her 49-year relationship as mentor and teacher to Hellen. The first word that Anne taught Helen to fingerspell was ‘doll’ so that Helen could understand the gift Anne brought her (Please check out the show notes for the attached fingerspelling chart and try to spell words out with your friends).
This was not an easy process, remember Helen was known for her wild tantrums. Anne insisted that she and Helen go somewhere isolated from others so that there could be a complete focus and Anne could teach Helen finger spelling by making the shapes of the letters on Helen’s palm. This worked. Helen learned 30 words that day.
So most of this you probably knew or at least had an idea of but here is what you might not be aware of. Her temper showed her to be willful but willful means tenacious. She did not give up easily even when the struggle was long and hard. It took Helen twenty-five years to teach herself to speak so that others could understand her.