Learning from Helen Keller

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Learning from Helen Keller

Facilitated Communication Institute

Helen Keller is probably the most universally recognized disabled person of the twentieth century. (Others such as Franklin Roosevelt were equally well-known, but Keller is remembered primarily for her accomplishments which are disability-related.) Those of us who have grown up in the last half of this century have only known Keller as a figure of veneration. We know her primarily through popularized versions of her life such as the play "The Miracle Worker," or through her autobiographical works such as The Story of My Life (Keller, 1961 [1902]) and The World I Live In (Keller, 1908). Most of us have come away with the image of a more-than-human person living with the blessed support of an equally superhuman mentor, Annie Sullivan Macy.

There is little wisdom, however, to be learned from the stories of superheroes. It is from observing the struggles, losses and compromises in both Keller and Sullivan's lives that we are likely to find parallels to the everyday experiences of ourselves and our friends. Dorothy Herrmann's recent biography of Keller, Helen Keller: A Life (Herrmann, 1998) creates a much more complete picture of the costs of Keller's celebrity and iconic status, and of the tensions present in her life-long relationship with the woman whom she always referred to as Teacher. In this paper, I will discuss two important themes from Helen Keller's life in terms of their implications for those of us who are also part of a community of people engaged in the enterprise of finding their voices in the world.

The "Frost King" Incident

Helen Keller was born in Alabama in 1880, and became deaf and then blind following an illness when she was 19 months old. Annie Sullivan came to Alabama to work as Helen's teacher in March, 1887. Scarcely a month later, on April 5, 1887, came the well-known moment at the water-pump, where Helen first associated the objects she experienced with the words being spelled into her hand. Within the next year, Helen began keeping a journal, and was studying the poetry of Longfellow, Whittier, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. By the time she was ten years old, Helen Keller was literally world-famous. As early as October, 1888, she was writing letters such as the following one to Michael Anagnos, the director of the Perkins' School for the Blind:

Mon cher Mon...

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...in facilitators, for administrators who provide access to enriched staffing resources, and for allies involved in connecting an individual with his or her broader community.

The world will never see another Helen Keller. Those visible people with disabilities of our generation do not stand alone and unique -- increasingly, they are powerful members of a powerful community, in control of those who support them rather than controlled by them. Those of us who are supporters and allies of facilitated communication users can play an important role in helping our friends come into possession of their power and full citizenship in our community. The most powerful acts -- and often the most complicated and painful ones -- by which we can support movement in this direction, are those acts by which, a piece at a time, we become less and less indispensable.


Herrmann, D. (1998). Helen Keller: A Life. New York, Alfred A. Knopf.

Keller, H. (1961 [1902]) The Story of my Life. New York, Dell.

Keller, H. (1908). The World I Live In. New York, Grosset and Dunlop.

Shevin, M. (1993). “Editorial: Who are our Phyllis Wheatleys?” Facilitated Communication Digest 1(3): 1-2.

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