Born in 1866, Anne Sullivan lost her mother when she was young and her father became an alcoholic. She and her siblings were sent to live with relatives, but in 1876 the family sent Annie and her youngest brother to the Tewksbury, Massachusetts poorhouse. There she lost her sight to trachoma. After four years, she was sent to the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston and eventually received medical treatment that restored her sight.
Upon graduation from Perkins in 1886, she began to teach. The next year, the Headmaster of Perkins wrote to her about the situation of a student who was blind and deaf, unable to communicate and demonstrating violent temper tantrums. No one had been successful in reaching her. Anne Sullivan rose to the challenge and traveled to Alabama to meet Helen Keller.
Sullivan had learned the manual alphabet and immediately began to teach Keller by letting her touch things. Sullivan would then spell what the object was in Keller’s hand. Sullivan succeeded in teaching Keller to read, write and minimally speak. In 1904, Keller graduated from Radcliffe College, supported by Sullivan’s presence.
Sullivan and Keller became world famous through Keller’s writing, lectures and other public appearances. Sullivan’s dedication and innovative teaching had made it possible for Keller to break through the formidable barriers that challenged people with multiple disabilities. Both became role models for thousands of physically challenged people around the world and raised thousands of dollars for organizations that assisted the blind.
Sullivan’s focus, persistence, and creativity forged a model that contributed to changing public perceptions regarding the capabilities of people with disabilities. Her insight and dedication contributed to the contemporary expansion of opportunities for people with disabilities and to breaking down myths and stereotypes, furthering social and economic justice.