Can you imagine what it would be like to not be able to see or hear? Your world would be completely dark and silent. How would you talk to your friends and family? How would you eat? How would you walk around the house and play with your friends? Tonight we are going to talk about a girl who lived most of her life without being able to see or hear. This is the amazing story of Helen Keller!
Helen Keller was born June 27, 1880, in Alabama. She was a healthy child and lived a pretty normal life for her first year. She learned to talk at 6 months old and walked like most kids when she was 1. When she was 19 months old she became very sick. After she was well her mother noticed she couldn’t see or hear anything. Helen had permanently lost her sight and hearing. Close your eyes again and cover your ears. This is how Helen lived and it was very difficult for her to cope with life afterward. Imagine trying to walk around the house or eat your dinner. Imagine trying to go outside and play and do basic things like play with your toys or friends. Because Helen couldn’t hear her ability to speak never improved, so she wasn’t able to talk to people in her family. All of these challenges led to Helen acting out in ways that made life for her and her family even harder. If you put yourself in Helen’s shoes you can think of how hard it would be to act normal under such circumstances.
Helen would often kick and pinch her family members. When she was angry she would fall on the floor and screen and yell. At the dinner table, she grabbed food off their plates. The family felt so bad for Helen that they let her do whatever she wanted. They didn’t know how to deal with a child who couldn’t see or hear. Some friends and family said they should send her away, because she was causing so much trouble for the family, but her parents loved her too much to do that.
One day her mother was reading about another child who was blind, but received help by Alexander Graham Bell. Alexander Graham Bell was also known for the invention of the telephone. They met Bell, who recommended them to a school called The Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, Massachusetts. They traveled there, and for the first time met Anne Sullivan. Anne Sullivan agreed to move to Alabama to help Helen.
Anne first taught Helen sign language. Sign language is where you move your hands and fingers in different ways to communicate words. For example, if you want to say “you” you point. If you want to eat you move toward your mouth with your fingers. But, of course, this didn’t work for Helen, so they tried to spell words into Helen’s hand so she could feel them. But Helen didn’t understand and became frustrated. One day at the dinner table yelled and started grabbing everyone’s food off their plates. Anne took control of the situation and had everyone leave the room. This made Helen even madder, but Anne was determined to show her that even when she threw tantrums she wouldn’t get what she wanted. Before she could improve at sign language, she’d need to learn some basic discipline.
Anne soon realized that the only way to teach Helen would be to live somewhere else. So they got in a carriage and rode circles around the family’s home for a while and then stopped at a small home nearby. They did this so Helen thought they had traveled very far, when really they were living around the corner. But it was important for Helen to know only Anne was around, so she’d have to rely on her to learn.
One day Anne had the idea to put Helen’s hand under the water to let her feel it first. Then she held her hand and spelled W-A-T-E-R into it with sign language. She did this over and over until it clicked for Helen that she could use these signs to communicate with others. She spelled the word back into Anne’s hand. Helen became very excited! By that evening they learned 30 new words! Once Helen could learn to communicate, she wasn’t as frustrated. Often when someone else is angry or acts out in ways we don’t understand, they may do this because they aren’t understood. Before you judge others and criticize them, first try to understand why they may be behaving this way. Anne did this with Helen and it completely changed her life.
With Anne’s help, Helen continued to learn new signs and eventually learned to read books using braille. Braille is bumps on a page that represent words. When a person cannot see they feel the words instead. For example, the letter “A” is a single dot and the letter “B” is two dots.
Helen also attended a school in Boston for other children who were deaf. She really wanted to be able to speak and for many years worked on improving this ability. She was also determined to go to college, but it was very expensive so she wasn’t sure how to make it happen. Around this time she met Mark Twain, the famous American author who wrote books like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. They became friends and Twain introduced her to a wealthy friend who decided to pay for her college. Helen attended and later graduated college, a major achievement for someone who was deaf and especially for someone who was deaf and blind.
Helen later wrote a book about her life and traveled and spoke to others about her experiences and ways to improve the world for people with disabilities. She also spoke in favor of women being able to vote. Soon people all over the world knew about Helen Keller and listened to her speak and read her books. In 1920 she helped start the American Civil Liberties Union.
Over the years, Helen traveled to 35 different countries, sharing her ideas and spreading her influence to others who were inspired by her incredible life.
Helen once said:
Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.
She also said:
The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.
Spend some time thinking about what it would be like to live like Helen. Do you know anyone who can’t see or hear? When you try to see the world the way someone else does, we call this “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes”, it helps you to understand them. Often we get caught up in our own little world and realize that the world is made up of people with many different life situations and experiences. When you get the chance, look up sign language symbols and letters and try to learn a few. It can be a lot of fun!
Think of the challenges Helen faced and think of your own challenges. It may not be obvious, but everyone has their own struggles and their own challenges. Spend some time thinking about yours, and what you might do to change your situation. You also may realize there are some things you just can’t change. For example, Helen wasn’t able to change the fact that she couldn’t see or hear. You may have similar challenges. You may be stuck in a place you don’t like or with someone who is hard to be around. Or maybe you have physical disabilities like Helen. But remember, even though you can’t always change your situation, you can change how you react to it. Helen couldn’t make herself see, but she could learn new ways to communicate. She learned sign language and learned braille, so she could read. She learned how to type, so she could write books. Everyone has their own unique challenges, so it is up to YOU to come up with a plan for how you can act and improve your situation. And this will often mean asking for help, and that is ok, too!