DISABILITY CHAMPIONS SERIES 05: HELEN KELLER – TRIUMPH OF THE DARING

Life is either a daring adventure or nothing… Helen Keller.

Across the globe the name Helen Keller rings a bell that return loud echoes. In fact, so much has been written about this amazing personality and so well known is her story that any attempt by this writer to retell will amount to a mere reinventing of the wheel.

That however, does not preclude the essence of saying something about the life this daring soul, drawing some nuggets, and receiving needed inspiration in this series.

We take an analytic approach.

Helen Keller, Deaf-blind, foremost champion of the Disability rights crusade is an epitome of the “daring, overcoming spirit” – thanks to her amazing accomplishments and enduring impact on civilization.

Keller’s life story holds out an inspiring, hope kindling message for every person with disability, no matter the odds. She’s is a living testimony to her famous quote: “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of overcoming“.

How did Keller overcome? And how may we who are burdened with one kind of disability or the other overcome in these times?

In this fifth of the Disability Champions Series, we will be zeroing in on the fundamental factors behind her challenging story of “overcoming” and what we in contemporary times may learn.

THE FAMILY FACTOR

“Family knows your flaws but loves you anyway”.

We are told that little Helen was born hearing and sighted. At 19 months an episode of “brain fever” left her Deaf-blind.

Shortly afterwards, the frustrations of being at once blind and deaf increasingly made this otherwise sweet kid unruly and tantrum throwing. Understandably, family was worried and concerned. Still, Helen was loved anyway.

This love prompted the search for answers.

When Helen’s mother read of the successful education of another Deaf-blind child (Laura Bridgeman), she had her husband take Helen to see Dr. Chisholm Julian, an Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist doctor. Doctor Chisholm recommended that Helen be taken to an Institute for the Blind (Perkins). There, Helen met Anne Sullivan who was to become a lifetime teacher, companion, and a most significant positive influence in her “Daring Overcomer’s” story.

Let’s pause to ponder…

So we have the first nugget in Keller’s story:

Family love plays a critical role in the eventual outcome of Persons with Disability and one way to express this love is for parents, guardians, siblings, etc, to be open to information and pursue enlightened advice on the specific kind of disability”.

THE INFLUENCE OF A TEACHER AND MENTOR

Various accounts of Keller’s story make reference to the phenomenal impact that her personal teacher, Anne Sullivan was on her development. In fact, Anne’s influence was considered nothing short of a miracle.

At this point, it is important to note that Anne herself had sight problems, better qualifying her for the task of guiding her charge.

The exceptional teacher and mentor that she was, Helen pays Anne glowing tribute when she wrote:

“It was my teacher’s genius, her quick sympathy, her loving tact which made the first years of my education so beautiful. It was because she seized the right moment to impart knowledge that made it so pleasant and acceptable to me “.

She goes on: “All the best of me belongs to Anne – there is not a talent, or an aspiration or a joy in me that has not been awakened by her loving touch.”

Pause… We find a couple nuggets from the foregoing:

“The child/Individual with disability needs a personal role model/mentor/teacher – especially one who shares (to some extent, at least) in the disability type of his or her pupil.”

“And our special educators may yet draw inspiration from Anne by commiting to a higher consciousness and conscientiousness in executing of the task they are called to.”

THE MAGIC MOMENT ARRIVES: A DRIVE FOR EDUCATION IS BORN

It was Anne Sullivan who triggered in Keller a passion for education and learning – a passion that was to fuel this deaf-blind achiever’s rise to global reckoning.

Sullivan began by spelling letters of the manual alphabet in Helen’s palm, then forming words from the letters, and eventually associating those words with their object equivalents.

The later approach however had little success until the magical moment Sullivan was inspired to hold her pupil’s hand under a running tap while she spelled “water” in the other palm. Helen instantly grasped the connection between word and object.

From that time, there was no turning back for Helen demanded to know more of this interesting connections between words and objects she couldn’t see owing to blindness. Anne passionately obliged. The result was phenomenal outcomes in young Helen’s learning curve over the years.

By age ten, this determinedly daring soul expressed a longing to improve on her halting speech. She was taken to a Deaf and hard of hearing school where she received speech lessons that formed the foundation of a renowned public speaking career in later years.

Further drives toward self-improvement and a sense of a purpose for living saw Helen attending Cambridge School for Young Ladies and Radcliffe College.

From Radcliffe, she graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in the arts. The first ever Deaf-blind person to achieve such feat! Her teacher and mentor Sullivan played a key role in all these – accompanying Keller everywhere to interpret lectures and take notes.

Pause to consider…

Education put Keller on a pedestal – giving her opportunity for fame and meeting with influential people. Just one example, Henry H. Rogers, impressed with Keller’s talent, drive and determination for education, awarded her a full scholarship at Radcliffe College.

I will like to draw the reader’s attention too, to the fact that it all began with a dedicated teacher-mentor’s ingenuity in doing her job.

So we have another nugget from Keller:

“The education of the special individual demand extras of creative thinking and originality”

Special educators may take cue from that defining moment of brilliance by Anne Sullivan. Be creative, innovate, improvise! One moment of such brilliance can trigger the first sparks of a enduring revolution.

INNER DRIVE, A SENSE OF PURPOSE AND PURSUIT OF SELF IMPROVEMENT

Inner drive, self motivated, a sense of purpose – these three words aptly captures the spirit that steadily grew in this disability champion right after that “magical water moment”.

Valid as the credit accorded Anne Sullivan for Keller’s amazing accomplishments is, it must not be allowed to overshadow Keller’s own remarkable “inner drive” to overcome the limitations of her circumstances and make meaning of her life. Keller inner drive was fueled by a sense of purpose.

By this uncommon inner drive, we see Keller persevering for over two decades learning to speak intelligibly. She worked hard at improving her communication skills to acquire the needed mastery for what she sensed as her “life purpose”: championing the cause of disability and social justice through public speaking and authoring.

Despite being late in picking up speech, Keller’s inner drive kept her going until she became an internationally recognized voice of advocacy, awareness and inspiration.

She learned to understand what others said by lip-reading with hands. She attained proficiency in braille and could read sign language with hands. Most notably, rather than allow her disability isolate her, Keller was very much in touch with the outside world. She enjoyed music by feeling vibration from the beats and she maintained a strong connection with animals through touch. Talk about keeping an open mind.

Some quick champions nuggets here:

Delay isn’t denial. Success calls for perseverance.

Having a sense of purpose for living keeps one on course amidst obstacles…and

It pays to stay open to the universe’s abundance.

Look inwards.

“Your success and happiness lies in you. Resolve to keep happy, and your joy and you shall form an invincible host against difficulties” Helen Keller.

MAD: MAKING A DIFFERENCE, TOUCHING LIVES

Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.” Helen Keller

In the years after college, buoyed up by a dream and the rich experiences of college life, Keller sought to impact lives and moved out of her comfort zone to share her experience with people with Disabilities and the mainstream society.

Pause and think: Leave your comfort zone!

Keller’s advocacy mostly centred on improving the welfare of the blind – a cause she strongly felt for based on her experience. Together with George Kessler, the Helen Keller International was founded to deal with causes/consequences of blindness and malnutrition.

The American Foundation for the Blind provided Keller a great platform to reach out. She teamed up with both humanitarian and political organizations in efforts dedicated to helping the less fortunate. On the political front, she was a founding member, in 1920, of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Among the numerous awards and honours accorded Keller were the:

Theodore Roosevelt Distinguished service medal.

President Medal of Freedom.

Election to the Women’s Hall of Fame and

Honorary doctorates from universities in the United States, Scotland, and Germany.

Keller, in her lifetime traverse some 35 countries and 5 continents bringing hope, inspiration and encouragement to multitudes through her speeches, writings and appearances.

She died on June 1, 1968 aged 88.

The Disability Champions Series, a collaborative project with Madam Joy Bolarin, Executive Director, Jibore Foundation, is anchored by Ogheneruemu Alexander (Disability issues blogger).

Special acknowledgement to T.O.L.A Foundation for constant back up supports.

Published January 29, 2023.

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