Helen Adams Keller (1880 – 1968) is renowned for defying all odds to accomplish great things despite being deaf and blind. After an illness in her childhood robbed her of her ability to see and hear, Helen was miraculously taught how to communicate by her instructor Anne Sullivan. She went on to become the first deaf blind person to earn a bachelor’s degree and during her years at college published her famous autobiography The Story of My Life. As an author she published 12 books apart from writing numerous articles. She co-founded Helen Keller International in 1915 and worked for the American Foundation for the Blind for more than 40 years. An inspiration to millions of people around the world, Helen Keller received numerous awards and honors including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Legion of Honour. Here are her 10 major achievements.
#1 Helen Keller was the first deaf blind person to earn a bachelor’s degree
Helen Keller made tremendous progress in learning to communicate due to the exceptional effort of her instructor Anne Sullivan, who evolved into her governess and later her companion. In 1888, Keller entered the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts. In 1894, she began attending Wright-Humason School for the Deaf in New York City and in 1896, she returned to Massachusetts to enter The Cambridge School for Young Ladies, a preparatory school for women. In 1900, Keller gained admittance to the famous Radcliffe College in Cambridge and in 1904, she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree. Helen Keller thus became the first deaf blind person to earn a bachelor’s degree.
#2 She published her famous autobiography The Story of My Life in 1903
During her junior year at Radcliffe, Helen Keller wrote her autobiography The Story of My Life, in which she recounted her journey from a child with an extreme handicap to a 21 year old student at Radcliffe. Among other things, the book talks about her education with Anne Sullivan describing how Sullivan enabled her to communicate with the world. The Story of My Life was published in 1903 when Keller was 22 years old. It has since been widely published and is still in print in over fifty languages. It was adapted into the famous Tony award winning play The Miracle Worker by William Gibson which premiered on Broadway in 1959 and ran for 719 performances; and a 1962 Oscar winning Hollywood film also titled The Miracle Worker.
#3 She published 12 books in her writing career including Light in My Darkness
Apart from The Story of My Life, Helen Keller published four other books on her personal experiences. In 1927, her book My Religion was published. It sold well and has remained in print ever since. The book focuses on and advocates the teachings of Swedish philosopher and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. It is regarded as the spiritual autobiography of Helen Keller. In 1994, My Religion was revised and re-issued under the title Light in My Darkness. In total, Helen Keller wrote 12 published books during her writing career. Her series of essays on socialism was published in 1913 under the title Out of the Dark. She also wrote a number of articles and was a frequent contributor to magazines and newspapers.
#4 She co-founded Helen Keller International in 1915
Along with American pioneer city planner George Kessler, Helen Keller founded the Helen Keller International (HKI) in 1915. She was a lifelong supporter and ambassador of the organization. HKI combats the causes and consequences of blindness and malnutrition. Its two major areas of expertise are Eye Health and Nutrition. Its achievements include agricultural programs that help families and villages to raise their own nutritious foods; addressing the major causes of blindness in the world; and successful initiatives to combat malnutrition and blindness in Bangladesh. Today, HKI is active in 22 countries and ranks among the most effective charities in the world with its programs benefiting millions of people.
#5 Keller was a prominent political and social activist
Helen Keller was a member of the Socialist Party and actively campaigned and wrote in support of the working class from 1909 to 1921. She was a vocal supporter of women’s right to vote and their right to birth control. In 1920, Keller co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) with nine other people. The ACLU initially focused on freedom of speech but soon expanded to address other issues. Today, it is active in all 50 states, has over 500,000 members and continues to work to protect the individual rights and liberties of Americans. Keller also campaigned for equal rights for blacks, socialism and anti-militarism. She donated money to National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), one of the most prominent African-American civil rights organization.
#6 She was a leading member of the American Foundation for the Blind
In 1924, Helen Keller joined the newly formed American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), an American non-profit organization for people with vision loss. The foundation provided her with a platform to advocate for the needs of people with vision loss. Her personality and international reputation helped her to secure large contributions for AFB from wealthy people including Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller. Keller traveled across the United States for AFB and helped in the creation of rehabilitation centers and state commissions for the blind. Keller worked for AFB for more than 40 years and devoted much of her later life to raising funds for the organization. Today AFB is a leader in expanding possibilities for more than 20 million Americans living with vision loss.
#7 Keller was a world renowned speaker
Helen Keller traveled across the world making appearances and giving motivational speeches. She not only spoke for the rights of people with disabilities but also for other unprivileged sections of society. Between 1946 and 1957, Keller made seven trips across the world visiting 35 countries on five continents and meeting with world leaders including Winston Churchill, Jawaharlal Nehru and Golda Meir. These trips included a hugely successful 1948 trip to Japan where around two million people came out to see her; and a five month tour through Asia in 1955 when Keller was 75 years old. Helen Keller was a world famous speaker and many of her speeches are preserved in the Helen Keller Archives owned by the AFB.
#8 She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964
In 1948, Helen Keller was sent to Japan by General Douglas MacArthur as America’s first Goodwill Ambassador. In 1952, Keller was awarded with The National Order of the Southern Cross by Brazil; and the Legion of Honour, the highest French order for military and civil merits. In 1955, she became the first recipient of the Order of the Golden Heart of Philippines. On September 14, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson conferred Helen Keller with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award of the United States. In 1965, she was one of the 20 women who were elected to the National Women’s Hall of Fame at the New York World’s Fair. Other awards received by Keller include Japan’s Sacred Treasure and Lebanon’s Gold Medal of Merit.
#9 Helen Keller is ranked as one of the most influential people of the twentieth century
In 1980, to mark the hundredth anniversary of Helen Keller’s birth, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp featuring Keller and her teacher and companion Anne Sullivan. In 1999, the TIME magazine included Keller in its list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. From 1999 to 2008, the United States Mint issued a series of circulating commemorative coins which featured each of the 50 US states on unique designs for the reverse of the quarter. This was known as the 50 State Quarters Program. Alabama chose to honor Helen Keller by featuring her on its state quarter. She was also inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame in 1971 and was one of 12 inaugural inductees to the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame in 2015.
#10 She remains an inspirational icon for millions across the world
The story of Helen Keller from being a deaf blind girl to graduating from Radcliffe and becoming a prominent writer and political activist provided inspiration to millions of people with disabilities. Keller became a celebrity at an early age and remained so through her life. Her appearances around the world drew considerable attention to the plight of people with disabilities in the countries she visited leading to improvement in their conditions. Her life story, achievements and speeches continue to be a source of inspiration to millions of people across the globe.