Influential Women #08: Helen Keller

It’s that time of the week again! Influential woman on request: Helen Keller. Even though she was born a healthy child, when she was only two years old Helen was struck by a horrific illness that left her both blind and deaf. This left Helen in a seriously disadvantaged position: besides the simple fact that she was a woman, she also could not hear nor see, and thus needed constant help and guidance. The terrible struggle she went through in her childhood because of this, however, never stopped her from making it in the outside world.

Because of her disabilities, Helen had a very rough childhood. Many saw her as uncontrollable: she had one tantrum after another,  and her parents had no clue how to deal with her. Many advised them to institutionalise Helen, but they refused to do that to their daughter. Instead, they got her a private teacher and companion – Anne Sullivan. Anne took Helen to the country where they lived together in a cottage, far away from the outside world that had Helen so worked up. There, she taught Helen several signs and ways of communication. At first it was very difficult, but once Helen got the hold of it and was able to express herself and her struggles, she instantly became much calmer.

Helen Keller went on to get a higher education. Thanks to Anne Sullivan repeating lectures by the means of communication the two had developed, Helen was able to graduate cum laude from Radcliffe College – something no one would have ever dreamt possible during her childhood. Helen took advantage of her excellent education to raise awareness for several social and political issues, among which mainly women’s rights and better treatments and improvements of the education of the blind and the deaf. In 1915 she co-founded the Helen Keller Institute, which purpose was to research the causes and consequences of blindness, and find ways to improve the general welfare of blind people.

Until she suffered a stroke in 1960, Helen continued her quest to improve life and education for the blind. She met up with several influential people (among which Mark Twain) to talk about her struggle, her ideas and the many improvements she wanted to make. Besides that, she wrote many articles for several magazines, and continued to give lectures about the topic of blindness as much as she could. She also influenced many organisations that focused on helping people with disabilities, among which the American Foundation of Overseas Blind, the American Federation for the Blind, Permanent Blind War Relief Fund, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Helen Keller eventually died peacefully in her sleep a few weeks before she would have turned 88. Her legacy, however, still exists today: her many efforts in the forms of articles, lectures, and organisations helped better the lives of permanently blind and disabled people to this day. Let’s hope the many people who told her parents to institutionalise her when she was a child lived long enough to see her become one of the most successful and influential women of her age – I bet they didn’t see that coming.

  • L. Parole

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