Helen Keller, the deaf and blind woman who was a writer and political activist

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Helen Keller was not born deaf or blind. At 19 months, he suffered an inflammation of the meninges. No one could pinpoint the origin of the disease or know if it was meningococcal meningitis, rubella or scarlet fever that had infected his nervous system. The truth is that he was left without vision or hearing. Thanks to the months that he was able to see and hear, for this early stimulation, Helen did not fall into autism.

His family belonged to the local petty bourgeoisie from Tuscumbia, Alabama, USA. Both of his grandparents had been Confederate officers during the Civil War, and his father was the editor of the local newspaper. Curiously, one of his Swiss ancestors was the first deaf teacher in Zurich.

After meningitis, Helen was left “Immersed in a dense mist”, as he wrote in his autobiography. A two-year-old girl, the daughter of the family’s cook, was the first to communicate with her, through a system of signs. With this method, she developed a communication with the people around her. At 7 years old, he had 60 signs to express himself and already he could distinguish people by the way they walked.

In 1886, her mother read American Notes, by Charles Dickens, and through this she learned that there was another blind and deaf girl named Laura Bridgman, who had been educated using the Braille code. Their hopeful parents consulted with Dr. Julian Chisolm of Baltimore, who recommended connecting with Alexander Graham Bell. The celebrated inventor was working with the Perkins Institute for the Blind – where Laura Bridgman was educated – which promoted the Tadoma method, of lip reading by touch. Bell was very interested in trying to improve the lives of those who were limited, especially hearing, because of the problems that his wife suffered.

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At the Perkins Institute, Helen was placed under the supervision of another girl with severe visual problems, Anne Sullivan. It was the beginning of a close 50-year relationship. Anne was the great manager of Helen’s educational process. However, she was not as popular as Helen. It was Anne who taught him to communicate by spelling the words, a complex form of training that frequently created frustrations for the young woman. Thanks to Anne’s perseverance, it was possible to overcome the initial resistance. The moment when Helen Keller’s perception “lights up” is when they put water in one hand and spell out the word in the other. “It was when the mystery of the words was revealed to me,” said the young woman. Then, he was able to write what he perceived, share his unique experience with the world.

In 1888, Helen and Ann attended the Perkins Institute for the Blind. The relationship with this institution ended abruptly, as Hellen was accused of plagiarism for a story she had written. In 1894, both Anne and Helen attended the Horace Mann Institute for the Hard of Hearing, and in 1900, the latter entered Harvard University, where she met the celebrated writer Mark Twain, who introduced her to Henry Huttleston Rogers, one of the owners of the Standard Oil. It was Rogers who paid for the girl’s education, who became the first deaf and blind person to earn a college degree.

The moment in which Helen Keller’s perception was “enlightened” was when they put water in one hand and spelled out the word in the other.

During her university studies, she began her political training, following the principles of the socialist and feminist movement of Emmeline Pankhurst, a British suffragette known for the aggressive promotion of her ideas. Helen’s forward thinking ideology contrasted with her parents’ conservative attitude, especially his father who as a convinced southerner was a slave and racist.

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In 1903, Helen edited her autobiography, a work that would cement her fame and which would be translated into fifty languages. Her political leanings were radicalized and she joined the socialist party and later the IWW, a workers’ union that opposed the armed conflict of 1914. Along with Anne they traveled invited to various countries -especially Japan where she was well known-, which is why Helen learned to speak to give lectures. As he expressed himself with difficulty, Anne was his interpreter for many years, even when she married the journalist John Macy,

Helen also met love, “a joyous shock,” as she described it. An assistant named Peter Fagan was the one who proposed to her. Curiously, and despite her defiant attitude towards society, Helen accepted her parents’ rejection of this proposal.

His support for Marxist socialism it raised obvious controversies. Several newspapers that had praised his achievement in the past and extolled his exemplary life, began to talk about his limitations and shortcomings in his perception. To one of those media, he wrote: “You are socially deaf and blind, and you defend an intolerable system that is the cause of the blindness and physical deafness that we try to prevent.” And among the causes of this “physical blindness” was prostitution and syphilis, which, at the beginning of the 20th century, was a frequent cause of blindness.

Turned into a activist and philanthropist, raised money for the American Foundation for the Blind, was an active figure in the American Civil Liberties Union, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by Lyndon Johnson, the last American president he knew personally, since since 1905 he had interviewed all the presidents of his country. Hellen died in June 1968 at the age of 87, in her sleep.

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Omar López Mato is a writer and historian.

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