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#WHM Spotlight: Helen Keller beyond “The Miracle Worker”


Most know the general story of the deaf-blind, unruly little girl, Helen Keller, who was taught to read, write and speak by her 20 year old teacher, Ann Sullivan. The book and movie portray the breakthrough moment when Helen feels water from a pump and Ms. Sullivan spells W-a-t-e-r on her hand.  Actually, the learning had begun when Helen was given a homemade doll and Ms. Sullivan spelled D-o-l-l on her hand.  She proceeded to learn to read both manually and in Braille and to write.  Inspired by a deaf-blind girl in Norway she learned speech.  From an early age, she attested that she would attend college.

In 1900 she graduated cum laude from Radcliff.  Ann Sullivan was always at her side, spelling book after book and lecture after lecture into her hand.  Throughout her life, Helen continued to study and stay informed on current events and she received seven (7) honorary doctorate degrees. Mark Twain was credited with saying, “the two most interesting characters in the nineteenth century were Helen Kellen and Napoleon.”

While at Radcliff, Helen began her writing career with an autobiography, The Story of My Life. Today the book is available in more than 50 languages.  She published several additional books and essays.

Following college her life was filled with activism and public speaking.  In 1910, she began campaigning for the prevention of blindness not only in the United States, but across the world.   In 1912, she joined the socialist party and was appointed to the public welfare board in Schenectady, New York.  She lectured widely on the social issues of the day.  Opposing prohibition, she said the sin was not alcohol but poverty which caused the poor to drink.  She stated being a part of the working poor was far worse than being blind. She was staunch advocate for women’s right to vote and access to birth control.  As an anti-militant, she protested against WWI but cared for blind veterans.

In 1920, Helen founded the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) with nine other activists. The organization originally focused on free speech but soon expanded to address other issues of civil rights. Helen campaigned for equal rights for blacks and for socialism.

In 1924, Helen Keller joined the newly founded non-profit American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). The organization provided her with an established platform from which to advocate for those with loss of vision.  Her personality and international reputation assisted the AFB in getting large donations from wealthy people including Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller.  For more than forty years, she travelled the county helping to establish rehabilitation centers and state commissions on blindness.

Helen Keller evolved from an uneducated child into an international spokeswoman for social justice.  Her celebrity allowed her to draw attention, not only to the blind, but to social causes throughout the world.




The American Foundation for the Blind (2016). Helen Keller – Advocate for the deaf and blind, author, socialist, and suffragist.

VCU Libraries, Social Welfare History Project 2016

10 Major Achievements of Helen Keller, Leamondo Newtonic

Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame

Library of Congress biographies