In February 1882, at 19 months, Helen Keller came down with a sickness that left her deaf and blind. For several years she was unruly terror until, on the recommendation of Alexander Graham Bell, the Kellers hired the partially blind Anne Sullivan as her private tutor. Though they got off to a slow start, the fruits and example of their relationship would forever improve life for the disabled.
The most famous incident in Helen Keller's life is the "water breakthrough." When Anne Sullivan was hired as Helen's tutor, she began forming finger signs in Helen's hand for all the things she experienced -- ike dolls and mugs -- but 6-year-old Helen made no connection between the signs and the objects. Finally, after a month of frustration, in a scene that has become immortalized on stage and screen, while Anne ran well water over Helen's hand while signing "water" into her palm, Helen finally got it, signed "water" back and urged her to show her signs for all kinds of new things.
Her whole life, Helen Keller campaigned tirelessly not only for the rights of the blind, deaf and otherwise disabled, but for all oppressed peoples. She supported the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, American Civil Liberties Union, Industrial Workers of the World, birth-control advocacy groups, women's suffrage and various world peace movements. Her efforts live on today through the institutions she helped found, including Helen Keller International and the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youth and Adults.
Through use of a Braille typewriter and the help of Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller published her best-known and most influential work, her autobiography "The Story of my Life," in 1903. She followed this with over a dozen other books, including "The World I Live In," "How I Would Help the World," "Optimism" and "My Religion," about the thoughts of Emmanuel Swedenborg, whose thoughts formed the basis of her religion, Swedenborgianism.
By giving hand signals to Anne Sullivan, and after her death Polly Thompson, Helen Keller was a popular and active speaker on social issues until shortly before she died. She delivered passionate speeches to world leaders and general audiences alike, advocating her passions such as rights for the disabled, human rights in general and socialism. Her love of the limelight also prompted her to a brief stint touring the vaudeville circuit.
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