Helen Keller, Disability Activist, Human Rights and World Traveler: A History Podcast For Kids

Helen Keller, Disability Activist, Human Rights and World Traveler: A History Podcast For Kids

Helen Keller

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 the name of 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 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.

Helen had earned a reputation and had become somewhat famous. When she decided to attend college she became friends with a writer named Mark Twain (he wrote Huck Finn). A very wealthy oil executive was so moved by Helen that he agreed to pay for her entire education at Radcliff College where Helen attended with Anne by her side to interpret the lessons. Helen even wrote her autobiography called The Story of My Life with the help of John Macy )who would later marry Anne.

Helen, after college, became a very involved social activist. She gave lectures all over the East coast and worked tirelessly for those who were also disabled. Helen worked hard for women’s rights, women's suffrage, labor rights, socialism and pacifism (which means a nonviolent solution to every problem). Helen even testified before Congress for the welfare of blind people in the United States. In 1915 she worked with city planner George Kessler to create Helen Keller International. 1920 Helen helped found the ACLU.

During Helen’s formative years the press had been supportive and kind to her until her political beliefs wavered from the center line. Helen became attracted to socialism as a way for every American to have a level and fair ability to access food, education, housing, and healthcare. She became a member of  A member of the Socialist Party of America and the Industrial Workers of the World

This was a time of the railroad and cotton barons who enjoyed tremendous wealth and her views on this system where states in the press to be from “mistakes sprung out of the manifest limitations of her development.”The Brooklyn Eagle.  In other words, she was mistaken because she was blind though no one had made this claim before. Her response to the paper was, “At that time the compliments he paid me were so generous that I blush to remember them. But now that I have come out for socialism he reminds me and the public that I am blind and deaf and especially liable to error. I must have shrunk in intelligence during the years since I met him. ... Oh, ridiculous Brooklyn Eagle! Socially blind and deaf, it defends an intolerable system, a system that is the cause of much of the physical blindness and deafness which we are trying to prevent.”

Even though her views were thought to be so radical the Rockefeller owned press refused to print her articles she decided to fight for what she felt was right and publicly protested until the newspaper backed down and printed her articles.

Even into her old age, Helen continued to advocate for others. In 1946 she worked for American Foundation of Overseas Blind. For them, she traveled to 35 countries from 1946-1957. At 75 she did a 40,000 mile trip in Asia. During her life, she met every U.S. President from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon B. Johnson

I hope you see why Helen Keller is so important. She was more than an inspiring story and more than a student. She was handed a path in her life that many would have been just happy to have survived but with help and with her determination she lived a full life of travel, friends, and accomplishments that shaped the lives of everyone around her.

If you can head over to the website to see images of Helen Keller, her teachers, some more of her very famous friends (Charlie Chaplin),  and take a look at how to do fingerspelling. My cousins and I spent an entire summer driving our parents nuts talking only in fingerspelling.

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