Disability History Month Poster 6: Helen Keller, writer and activist

Born into a confederate family in northern Alabama in 1880, Helen Keller lost her sight and hearing as a result of childhood illness at the age of nineteen months. In March 1887 when she was six years old, Helen met Anne Mansfield Sullivan, fourteen years her senior and with impaired vision herself, who would become her teacher and life-long companion. Anne Sullivan taught Helen manual sign language and oversaw her schooling.  Keller described in her childhood autobiography, The Story of My Life, a breakthrough moment when the “living word awakened my soul” and showed her that “barriers […] could in time be swept away”, as she connected the manual signs for w-a-t-e-r that Sullivan traced on one of her hands as she poured cold water on the other.  Keller became the first deaf-blind person to attain a BA degree, when she graduated cum laude from Radcliffe College, Harvard in 1904.

What is notable is how Keller’s career-long campaigning and advocacy work for the rights of people with disabilities formed part of a suite of causes and beliefs that she championed.  Keller was also a suffragist and a socialist, a pacifist and a supporter of contraceptive rights (and eugenics). She became an early member of the American Civil Liberties Union in 1920. In the sphere of disability rights, she helped to build the American Foundation for the Blind in 1924, and wrote and campaigned extensively, travelling to 35 countries across 5 continents in the period 1946-1957 alone. Keller herself recognised the inextricability of the causes she espoused: “For the first time [when appointed to a commission to investigate the conditions of blind people] I, who had thought blindness a misfortune beyond human control, found that too much of it was traceable to wrong industrial conditions, often caused by the selfishness and greed of employers. And the social evil contributed its share. I found that poverty drove women to a life of shame that ended in blindness [an allusion to syphilis contracted through sex work]. […] It seemed as if I had been asleep and waked to a new world.”

Keller was an international celebrity figure; she met all the US presidents of her lifetime from Grover Cleveland on and counted international politicians, world-famous actors, and public figures as friends, from Albert Einstein and Alexander Graham Bell to Mark Twain and Charlie Chaplin. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 and died four years later.

Disability History Month runs from 22nd November to 22nd December.  

About standrewshistory
With over forty fulltime members of staff researching and teaching on European, American and Asian history from the dawn of the Middle Ages to the present day, the School of History at the University of St Andrews has one of the finest faculty and diverse teaching programmes of any School of History in the English speaking world. The School boasts expertise in Mediaeval and Modern History, from Scotland to Byzantium and the Americas to South Asia. Thematic interests include religious history, urban history, transnationalism, historiography and nationalism. The School of History prides itself on small group teaching, allowing for in-depth study and supervision tailored to secure the best from each student. Cutting edge research combined with teaching excellence offer a dynamic and intellectually stimulating environment for the study of History.

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