We begin our celebration of Disability Pride Month with one of the first disability rights activists Helen Keller.
Hellen Keller was a world-famous author and activist, but did you know she was a trailblazer in many other ways?
Helen Adams Keller (June 27, 1880 – June 1, 1968) was an American author, disability rights advocate, political activist and lecturer. Born in West Tuscumbia, Alabama, she lost her sight and her hearing after a bout of illness at the age of 19 months. She then communicated primarily using home signs until the age of seven, when she met her first teacher and life-long companion Anne Sullivan. This young woman taught Keller language, including reading and writing. After an education at both specialist and mainstream schools, Keller attended Radcliffe College of Harvard University and became the first deafblind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree.
She worked for the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) from 1924 until 1968. During this time she toured the United States and traveled to 35 countries around the globe advocating for those with vision loss.
Keller was also a prolific author, writing 14 books and hundreds of speeches and essays on topics ranging from animals to Mahatma Gandhi. Keller campaigned for those with disabilities, for women’s suffrage, labor rights, and world peace. In 1909 she joined the Socialist Party of America. She was a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Keller became a world-famous speaker and author. She was an advocate for people with disabilities, amid numerous other causes. She traveled to twenty-five different countries giving motivational speeches about Deaf people’s conditions. She was a suffragist, pacifist, radical socialist and birth control supporter, all radical views for a woman in the early 20th century.
In 1915, she and George A. Kessler founded the Helen Keller International (HKI) organization. This organization is devoted to research in vision, health, and nutrition. In 1916, she sent money to the NAACP, as she was ashamed of the Southern un-Christian treatment of “colored people”.
In 1920, she helped to found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). She was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1953. The nomination came after Keller visited the Mideast in 1952 and met with local leaders to advocate for the rights of those who were blind or disabled. She secured a promise from Egypt’s Minister of Education to create secondary schools for the blind that could lead to a college education. The legacy of her visit still lives on at the Hellen Keller School in Jerusalem, Israel.
On September 14, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the United States’ two highest civilian honors. In 1965 she was elected to the National Women’s Hall of Fame at the New York World’s Fair.
Keller devoted much of her later life to raising funds for the American Foundation for the Blind. She died in her sleep on June 1, 1968, at her home, Arcan Ridge, located in Easton, Connecticut, a few weeks short of her eighty-eighth birthday. A service was held in her honor at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., her body was cremated and her ashes were buried there next to her lifelong companion, Anne Sullivan.