11 things you (maybe) didn’t know about Helen Keller

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…


Street art of Helen Keller, Montreal. Credit: Meunierd

#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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