Women Who Inspire Us: Helen Keller

Helen Keller sits in a chair reading

Many know the childhood story of Helen Keller. Born deaf and blind, she learned to speak and read from her teacher, Anne Sullivan. However, many are unaware of the incredible life she led beyond her childhood years. Helen Keller was an author, public speaker, suffragist, and civil rights leader who fought tirelessly to stand up for those who had less power to do so.

Early life

Keller was born on June 27, 1880. When she was two years old, she experienced a severe illness – possibly scarlet fever or meningitis - that left her deaf and blind. Keller’s mother eventually sought help from Alexander Graham Bell, known for his work with deaf children. Eventually, Keller found her way to Perkins School for the Blind, where she met her lifelong teacher, Anne Sullivan. Sullivan taught her words by signing them on her palm. A year later, Keller learned to read braille.

Keller went on to graduate from Radcliffe College of Harvard University. She was the first deafblind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts.

Over the course of her lifetime, she wrote hundreds of essays and speeches, as well as 14 books. She published her autobiography, The Story of My Life, when she was 22 years old. The book was adapted first as a play and then as a film, entitled The Miracle Worker.

Activism and politics

Helen Keller traveled the world as an author and public speaker. While she was known as an advocate for people with disabilities, she was also a supporter of birth control and a member of the suffragist movement.

Keller also became involved in the fight for worker’s rights. In 1920, she helped found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in part to support striking workers hoping for better conditions and pay. She also spoke out against white supremacy and lynching, and was a supporter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Through her own investigations, Keller recognized that blindness and other disabilities often were the result of poverty and oppression. She founded the Hellen Keller International (HKI) organization, in an effort to combat the causes of blindness and malnutrition. She also raised funds for the American Foundation for the Blind for over 40 years.

Keller met every president from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon B. Johnson and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her efforts in 1964.

She suffered a stroke in 1961 and spent most of the remaining in her home. She died in her sleep in 1968 at the age of 88.