Today, June 27th, we celebrate Helen Keller, a deaf-blind activist who advocated for laws to protect and help disabled people. In this blog, we will investigate Helen's life, starting with the story you know and moving on to the many aspects of her life that you likely never learned. We will also explore how her legacy continues today through advocacy and the work of others.
Editor's Note: This blog was written by UsableNet's Intern, Lily Mordaunt. Lily is a graduate of Hunter College with a Bachelor's degree in creative writing. Read more blogs from Lily here.
Helen Keller: the Story you Know
Helen Keller was born in Alabama in 1880. By age two, she suffered a disease that caused her to lose hearing and sight. By seven, she was throwing tantrums that her family could not control because they could not effectively communicate with her. Alexander Graham Bell referred her parents to the Perkins School for The Blind.
From there, Anne Sullivan—the teacher nearly as famous as Helen—was asked to work with Helen. Helen would not make Anne's job easy—from smashing a mug in frustration to grabbing food off others' plates. But Anne persisted until they had a breakthrough. At a water pump near the house, Helen recognized and tried to say water. Anne took this opportunity to spell the word into Helen's hand and the rest, as they say, is history.
Except it's not.
If you were like me, this is probably the extent of Helen's story in your mind. Occasionally, random tidbits would trickle in, like the fact that she was nearly married or that her beloved teacher passed away long before Helen. But that was about it. It wasn't until writing this blog post that I truly delved into the life of Helen Keller: a socialist, disabilities rights advocate, and polyglot. So join me on this fascinating dive into the life of a figure who is famous yet not truly known.
Helen Keller was an Advocate.
During her lifetime, Helen Keller traveled the world advocating for disabled people. In the US, she promoted state-funded programs for the deaf, blind, and deaf-blind, including job training and placement. She also lobbied for laws protecting and promoting education amongst the civilian population and veterans blinded by World Wars. Her activism became instrumental in founding the Massachusetts Commission For The Blind.
In the 39 countries she visited, she advocated for the blind and deaf-blind populations. Her goals were to persuade governments to open schools for and improve the lives of their disabled people.
Helen Keller was a Humanitarian.
Helen Keller used her fame to speak out against the treatment of marginalized groups. She marched for and gave speeches about the women's suffrage movement. Helen opposed child labor and wrote about the terrible working conditions that contributed to the blindness of industrial workers. One of the founders of the ACLU (Americans Civil Liberties Union), she also openly supported the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).
What are some little know facts about Helen Keller?
- Helen Keller graduated cum laude from Radcliffe college as the first deaf/blind person with a Bachelor of Arts degree.
- She spoke at least four languages: Latin, French, German, and English.
- Her teacher, Anne Sullivan, was also visually impaired.
- Helen Keller could recognize a person by the vibration of their footsteps, and she enjoyed music through vibrations too.
- Helen Keller was a vaudeville performer.
Helen Keller's Legacy Today
Helen Keller was a vocal advocate for the rights of the disabled. She lobbied for laws that would protect these groups and traveled the world promoting her message. Often she was successful though she did not always see the fruits of her success during her lifetime.
In 1990, Thanks to the tireless work of advocates, Congress passed the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). This law, in its simplest form, prohibits discrimination against the disabled. Just a few months ago, in 2022, the DOJ published guidelines for web accessibility and where it fits in the framework of the ADA.
Helen Keller's dream is an ongoing one of equal access for people with disabilities.
Why write about Helen Keller for UsableNet?
Helen Keller worked to remove barriers for blind, deaf, and deaf-blind individuals. Indeed, the Internet wasn't around in her day. Yet, I can't imagine that she would not have advocated for inclusion there as well; "Education and work are enough, access to apps and websites… no thanks."
In the post-Covid world, so much of life is online: work, school, grocery shopping, banking, networking on social media, and more. In 2022, accessibility goes beyond the physical and includes the digital. If our peers can have full access to apps and websites, so should the disabled.
Helen Keller's legacy endures. The organizations that bear her name, the advocates who speak out for marginalized groups, and the accessibility community that work to make the physical and digital world more inclusive carry on her work. Read more about Helen Keller Day here.
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