Born in Alabama 139 years ago today, Helen Keller is justly celebrated for her courage in the face of overwhelming odds – overcoming blindness and deafness to become one of the 20th century’s greatest humanitarians. But here are 11 facts you may not have known about this truly inspiring woman…
#1 Fiercely intelligent, Helen started talking at 6 months old – only to lose both sight and hearing when illness struck at 19 months.
#2 The day 7-year-old Helen learned her first word – ‘water’ – which her gifted tutor, Anne Sullivan, spelled out on her palm while simultaneously pouring water on it – she insisted on learning 30 more words by bedtime.
#3 Helen was the world’s first deaf-blind college graduate, gaining a BA degree from Radcliffe (Harvard’s women’s college) aged 24.
#4 Noticing the link between disability and poverty, she joined the Socialist Party. A suffragist and pacifist, she campaigned for workers’ rights and birth control, and opposed racism and child labour.
#5 The FBI followed her for 30 years because of her civil rights activism.
#6 In 1919, Helen starred in a film (Deliverance) based on her life.
#7 Helen was influential in making Braille the official US writing system for the blind, and set up a charity to help servicemen blinded in combat.
#8 She was a co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union.
#9 A prolific author and orator, she published 14 books and toured 35 countries.
#10 Helen met 12 presidents, including JFK, and her friends included Charlie Chaplin, Henry Ford, Mark Twain, Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell.
#11 In her thirties, Helen tried to elope with her boyfriend, a journalist, but her family blocked their marriage, partly because of prevailing beliefs about eugenics.
That last fact is a sobering reminder of the many challenges Helen must have faced to achieve what she did. In a week which saw Jimmy Carr’s horrible joke about dwarfism, we’re reminded that the need for civil rights activism is as great as ever.
As TIME magazine recently put it: “During a time in which 1 in 4 disabled adults live in poverty in the US, [Keller’s] perspectives on economic injustice remain significant. Rather than asking for hope, she demanded equality.”
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