Saturday, March 6, 2010

Helen Keller: Alabamian of the Month

Born in Tuscumbia, Alabama on June 27, 1880, Helen was completely healthy, with perfect vision and hearing. In February 1882, however, Helen became ill. It is still not known for certain what caused her to become sick; in those days the doctors called it 'brain fever.' The best educated guess today is either meningitis or scarlet fever. Though Helen was very ill for many days, she finally recovered.

It soon became apparent that, although the immediate crisis had passed, another one loomed.  Helen was unresponsive to sound or sight, and her heartbroken parents were left with the realization that her illness had caused her to become deaf and blind.

As Helen grew older, her family found it more and more difficult to manage her frequent temper tantrums, which included the smashing of dishes and lamps. It was the opinion of some family members that she should be institutionalized.

Helen's mother, Kate, had learned of a specialist in Baltimore and arranged for an examination of Helen.  It was confirmed that she would never hear or see, but the doctor believed that there was hope for Helen to be taught to communicate.  He suggested a local expert on the problems of deaf children: Alexander Graham Bell. Although famous for his invention of the telephone, Bell had embarked on the teaching of deaf children.

He suggested that the Keller family write to the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts Asylum for the Blind, to request that its director, Michael Anagnos, find a teacher for Helen. Mr. Anagnos recommended a former pupil, Anne Sullivan.  Anne had lost most of her sight at the age of five. Her childhood was very sad; after her mothed died when Anne was only ten, her father deserted her and her brother Jimmie. They were then sent to live in a poorhouse in 1876, where Jimmie later died.

In 1880 Anne left the poorhouse to attend the Perkins Institution. While there she had two surgeries on her eyes, which allowed her to read for short periods of time. She graduated from Perkins in 1886. With limited vision it was difficult for Anne to find any kind of meaningful employment, however. When the offer from the Kellers came for her to teach Helen, a deaf-blind-mute child, she accepted the challenge.

More to come....

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