Celebrate National Deaf-Blind Awareness Week

June 28, 2011 at 3:06 pm 1 comment

Helen Keller and Annie SullivanECNV celebrates National Deaf-Blind Awareness Week this week (June 26 – July 2), and we salute the memory of Helen Keller, a deaf-blind woman and early leader in the cause of disability rights, whose birthday was June 27!  Congress established National  Deaf-Blind Awareness Week, which has been celebrated since 1968, to commemorate the life and legacy of Helen Keller and to call attention to the resources, training and supports that ensure independent living and full participation in our society for over 1 million people who are deaf-blind.

Helen Keller (1880-1968) was an internationally known author and lecturer, an advisor to U.S. presidents, and a 1964 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor our nation bestows on a civilian.  Justin Dart, Jr., one of the leaders of the movement toward the ADA was also a recipient of the Medal of Freedom.

Ms. Keller advocated a more just and peaceful world which would respect the human rights and dignity of all.  She was a close advisor to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor.  Deaf-blind as a result of a childhood illness, she was a strong advocate for the education and training of people with disabilities in a time when society dismissed people with disabilities as uneducable and shut them away in asylums and other institutions.  Keller’s own life stood in stark contrast to these beliefs! 

Many people know the story of how Keller’s parents sought a way to educate their deaf-blind daughter and found Anne Sullivan, a young woman referred to them by the Perkins School for the Blind.  Through persistence and dedication, Sullivan was able to give Keller the gift of language by teaching her the manual alphabet and a tactile form of American Sign Language, and, in so doing, opened her mind to the world around her.  Keller was 7 years old.  Thereafter, Keller attended the Perkins School in Boston, Massachusetts where she learned Braille and completed high school. 

Hellen Keller at work in her studyFollowing Perkins, Keller was not satisfied with just wasting away sitting at home.  She was ambitious and bright.  She figured out that she would need a good education to make her way in the world.  With her family’s support, and that of her “teacher”, Annie Sullivan, Keller attended Radcliffe College.  In 1900, young, bright women attended Radcliffe while their male counterparts went to Harvard.  Keller was a straight “A” student, graduating cum laude from Radicliffe in 1904.  Thereafter, Keller pursued a career as an author and lecturer. 

Of course, Keller’s story was the exception and not the rule, and most people with disabilities of average means in the late 1900’s and early 20th Century had little chance to excel in the way she did.  However, her efforts and those of Annie Sullivan help change some of the prejudices and stereotypes that stood in the way of people with disabilities having lives of greater independence and dignity.

Many people have heard about Helen Keller, but few people know much about Anne Macy Sullivan.  Sullivan, who was legally blind, was born in Massachusetts to an impoverished, Irish immigrant family.  She was the eldest of 3 children.  An untreated eye infection left her with deteriorating sight at age 4.  When Annie was 8 years old, her mother died and two years later her abusive, alcoholic father abandoned the 3 children.  A family member adopted Mary, the youngest child.  Mary did not have a disability but Annie and her brother, Jimmy, who had a physical disability, were sent to an asylum, an all too common fate for children with disabilities in the 1870’s.

Annie’s brother died after only 3 months in the institution, but she remained confined there for four more years.  She got out only through her own courage and resourcefulness when she approached an influential visitor to the institution and told him she wanted to go to school.  He arranged for her to attend the Perkins School.  She entered Perkins at age 14 without any previous formal education  While there, she gained Braille and print literacy, graduated high school and was her class valedictorian, and completed teacher training to prepare her to work with blind and deaf-blind students, including learning sign language.  At 21 years of age, she was referred to the Kellers, who wanted a governess and tutor for their daughter, Helen. 

Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller, and Alexander Graham BellThe rest is history!  Annie Sullivan worked with Keller throughout her school years, while she attended college, and beyond.  Annie served not only as Helen’s teacher but also as her Braille transcriber, interpreter, reader, sighted guide, and companion.  In the mean time, she also married John Macy, a famous literary critic, author and editor.  Anne Sullivan Macy was recognized for her innovative teaching techniques and was considered a leader in the field of education of deaf-blind students.  Clearly, she too was a brilliant, young woman with a disability who led the way to a better future for thousands of children with disabilities.

Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy are truly two examples of early leaders in the disability rights and independent living movements.  They may not have called it “independent living” but their example and their legacy helped bring us to where we are today!  For more information about Deaf-Blind Awareness Week, contact the National Helen Keller Center at www.hknc.org.


Entry filed under: Disability History. Tags: , , , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Cullen Child  |  March 9, 2014 at 11:10 am

    I am deafblind


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