What would it be like to be unable to see anything, hear anything, or say anything? Life for young Helen Keller was like that. She had had an illness before she was two years old that had left her deaf, dumb and blind. After that, it was difficult for her to communicate with anyone. She could only learn by feeling with her hands. This was very frustrating for Helen, her mother and her father.
Helen Keller grew up in Alabama, U.S.A., during the 1880s and 1890s. At that time, people who had lost the use of their eyes, ears and mouth often ended up in charitable institutions. Such a place would provide them with basic food and shelter until they died. Or they could go out on the streets with a beggar’s bowl and ask strangers for money. Since Helen’s parents were not poor, she did not have to do either of these things. But her parents knew that they would have to do something to help her.
One day, when she was six years old, Helen became frustrated that her mother was spending so much time with the new baby. Unable to express her anger, Helen tipped over the baby’s crib, nearly injuring the baby. Her parents were horrified and decided to take the last chance open to them. They would try to find someone to teach Helen to communicate.
A new school in Boston claimed to be able to teach children like Helen. The Kellers wrote a letter to the school in Boston asking for help. In March 1887, a teacher, twenty year old Anne Sullivan arrived at the Keller’s home in Tuscumbia, Alabama.
Anne Sullivan herself had had a very difficult life. Her mother had died when she was eight. Two years later, their father had abandoned Anne and her little brother Jimmy. Anne was nearly blind and her brother had a diseased hip. No one wanted the two handicapped children, so they were sent to a charitable institution. Jimmy died there. At age 14, Anne, who was not quite blind, was sent to the school for the blind in Boston. Since she had not had any schooling before, she had to start in Grade One. Then she had an operation that gave her back some of her eyesight. Since Anne knew what it was like to be blind, she was a sympathetic teacher.
Before Anne could teach Helen anything, she had to get her attention. Because Helen was so hard to communicate with, she was often left alone to do as she pleased. A few days after she arrived, Anne insisted that Helen learn to sit down at the table and eat breakfast properly. Anne told the Kellers to leave, and she spent all morning in the breakfast room with Helen. Finally, after a difficult struggle she got the little girl to sit at the table and use a knife and fork.
Since the Keller family did not like to be strict with Helen, Anne decided that she needed to be alone with her for a while. There was a little cottage away from the big house. The teacher and pupil moved there for some weeks. It was here that Anne taught Helen the manual alphabet. This was a system of sign language. But since Helen couldn’t see, Anne had to make the signs in her hands so that she could feel them. For a long time, Helen had no idea what the words she was learning meant. She learned words like “box” and “cat,” but hadn’t learned that they referred to those objects. One day, Anne dragged Helen to a water pump and made the signs for “water” while she pumped water over Helen’s hands. Helen at last made the connection between the signs and the thing. “Water” was that cool, wet liquid stuff. Once Helen realized that the manual alphabet could be used to name things, she ran around naming everything. Before too long, she began to make sentences using the manual alphabet. She also learned to read and write using the “Square Hand Alphabet” which was made up of raised square letters. Before long, she was also using Braille and beginning to read books.
Helen eventually learned to speak a little, although this was hard for her because she couldn’t hear herself. She went on to school and then to Radcliffe College. She wrote Articles and books, gave lectures, and worked tirelessly to help the blind. The little girl who couldn’t communicate with anyone became, in time, a wonderful communicator.