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Although many people think of sensory disability in terms of being either deaf or blind, over 1 million people in North America alone are both deaf and blind, or deafblind.

Helen Keller: A Healthy Beginning

Deafblindness strikes males and females of every age and every background, children, teens, young adults, and elders. Among people of every ethnic and cultural background, the incidence of deafblindness is growing—but many of the techniques of dealing with the condition were developed in the lifetime of perhaps the most famous deafblind person, Helen Keller.

Helen Adams Keller was born June 27, 1880 in Tuscumbia, Alabama, a tiny agricultural settlement in the wooded, rolling hills on the edge of the Appalachian mountains. As an infant, Helen could see and hear. She was fortunate to have been born into a relatively prosperous and stable family, her father the owner of a cotton farm and a newspaper, The North Alabaman, and her mother the mistress of the plantation who, like many women in northern Alabama, supervised the production of the family's own ham, bacon, and lard, staples of the Southern diet.

In February of 1882 nineteenth month-old Helen fell deathly ill with what was at the time called "brain fever." This is most likely bacterial meningitis. For a number of days Helen was expected to die, but finally Helen's fever broke. Her parents Arthur and Kate rejoiced at her recovery, but were soon dismayed when Helen failed to respond to the ringing of a dinner bell or when a hand was passed in front of her eyes.

Early Years of Deafblindness

After the illness, Helen became a difficult child. She threw tantrums, breaking lamps and dishes. She terrorized neighbors and visiting members of her extended family. Kate and Arthur were advised to send her to an institution, but they could not bear to send Helen to such a limited life.

Having read in Charles Dickens' American Notes about the extraordinary success in educating another deafblind child, Laura Bridgman, the Kellers traveled to Baltimore to consult with a specialist. The Kellers were told Helen would never see nor hear again, but that a local educator—Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone—might be able to help. Bell encouraged the Kellers that Helen could be educated, and referred them to Michael Anagnos, an educator of the blind in Massachusetts. Anagnos in turn recommended his former student, Anne Sullivan.

Anne Sullivan: The Miracle Worker

Anne Sullivan would come to be known as the miracle worker, but only after many years of her own suffering. Blinded at the age of five, Anne and her brother were abandoned by their parents and sent to a workhouse for orphans. Anne's brother died at the workhouse. Anne later was sent for education by Anagnos, and she received two operations that allowed her to see well enough to read print for short periods of time.

Even after receiving surgery and an education, however, there was no work for Ms. Sullivan. When Michael Anagnos recommended she go to Tuscumbia to work for the Kellers as Helen's teacher, she eagerly accepted.

Helen Keller Learns Language

Anne Sullivan arrived in Alabama on March 3, 1887. She immediately attempted to teach Helen to finger spell, using the finger positions now used in sign language. She quickly taught Helen the words "doll" and "cake," although it wasn't clear Helen knew what they meant.

A much bigger issue for Helen and the entire family, however, was the matter of Helen's table manners. Helen ate with her fingers and habitually took anything she wanted off other people's plates. To break these habits, Ms. Sullivan moved with Helen into a cabin, where she insisted Helen learn to eat with utensils. When Helen refused to eat in a "ladylike" fashion, Ms. Sullivan punished her by refusing to sign.

Then, on April 5, 1887, the miracle occurred. Ms. Sullivan went to the well to pump water. She fingerspelled the word "w-a-t-e-r" as a worker poured water over young Helen's hand. From the expression on Helen's face it was evident she now understood what words meant.

As Helen Keller later described the incident, she and Ms. Sullivan had walked down to the well house, drawn by the fragrance of the blooming honeysuckle. Someone was pumping water and Ms. Sullivan placed Helen's hand in the flow. Anne Sullivan spelled the word slowly and then rapidly. Suddenly, Helen said, "the mystery of language was revealed to me."

Helen Keller suddenly began learning words for everything around her. In a very short time, her knowledge of language equalled and then surpassed that of most seeing and hearing people.

First Deafblind College Graduate

Over the next 13 years, Helen would return to Alexander Graham Bell and then take residence in Boston to become the first deafblind person to attend university, at Radcliffe College. Anne Sullivan took on the burden of listening to lectures and reading books, painstakingly finger spelling all she read and heard for Helen to understand.

In 1904, Helen graduated, becoming the first deafblind person to earn a university degree. Helen wrote her memoirs, and Anne Sullivan fell in love with and married her book's publisher. In print since 1903, "The Story of My Life" has become a classic. Helen Keller was never able to learn how to speak, but with the help of Anne Sullivan, who died in 1936, and then Polly Thompson, Helen Keller gave lectures, met Presidents and the King and Queen of England, and worked tirelessly to raise money for the education of the blind and deafblind. Helen Keller became an international celebrity, dying at the age of 87 in 1968.

What If Helen Keller Were Alive Today?

The story of Helen Keller, of course, would never have been told had she not had dedicated caretakers who learned finger spelling so Helen could share her thoughts with and learn about the world around her. Today, electronic technologies vastly expand the ability of the deafblind to communicate in their world, far more than she or Anne Sullivan could possibly imagine.

The many advances that make life better for the deafblind were not developed by Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan, but together they were the first to show that the deafblind can fully participate in modern society. In 2010, the Helen Keller Deaf-Blind Awareness Week showcases the Support Service Provider (SSP). These are individuals specially trained and dedicating to enabling deafblind people to connect with the greater world and to make informed decisions. SSP's might help a deafblind client go shopping, enjoy a night on the town, or run a 10K race. There is currently even one deafblind person who, with the help of a SSP, is hiking America's Appalachian Trail.

For more information on Deaf-Blind Awareness Week, visit Helen Keller National Center.

  • "Helen Keller FAQ". Perkins School for the Blind.
  • Herrmann, Dorothy. Helen Keller: A Life. New York, NY: Knopf. ISBN 0679443541.