When she was nineteen months old, an illness left Helen deaf, blind, and mute.
Though a wild, destructive child, she showed such signs of intelligence that her mother sent for a special teacher. The teacher, young Anne Sullivan, herself formerly blind, managed to break through to communicate with Helen. The child loved to learn, and her remarkable achievements in reading, writing and even speaking soon made her internationally famous.
Helen earned a bachelor’s degree from Radcliffe College, where Anne Sullivan accompanied her to every class and spelled the lectures into her hand. Keller wrote poetry, toured on the Chautauqua lecture circuit, and published an autobiography, The Story of My Life. Helen became a member of the Socialist Party. She also supported controversial groups like the Industrial Workers of the World, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Margaret Sanger’s birth control crusade.
In the 1920s, the newly established American Foundation for the Blind asked Helen Keller to help them raise funds. She was living testimony to the capabilities of a group once assumed to be retarded and helpless, and she spent most of the rest of her life as the most prominent advocate for the needs and rights of the handicapped. She lobbied for measures to aid the blind, including reading services and Social Security acceptance.