Helen Keller: Beyond Darkness and Silence

Kalpana Pandey
Helen Keller was born on June 27, 1880 in Tuscumbia, Alabama, USA. At the young age of 19 months, she was stricken with a serious illness that left her deaf and blind. Frustrated by her helplessness, Helen became irritable and angry. When Keller was seven years old, her parents hired a 20-year-old Ann Mansfield Sullivan as a teacher.
The moment Sullivan came into Keller’s life was a turning point in her life. Through finger-spelling, tactile sign language, and rigorous instruction, Sullivan began tutoring Keller. She primarily used American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate with Helen Keller.. In addition to ASL, she also used tactile sign language, where signs are recognized by touch rather than sight. When Helen was 10, Anne took her to meet Sarah Fuller at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Boston. There Helen learned many things from Fuller. Sullivan and Helen’s journey is depicted in the film ‘The Miracle Worker’. A 7-year-old girl suffering from depression was made confident and self-reliant in many ways by her teacher Ann Mansfield Sullivan. Added to it was the determination and perseverance of Helen Keller.
Keller’s academic performance was remarkable. She graduated cum laude from Radcliffe College in 1904, becoming the first mute-blind person to receive a Bachelor of Arts degree. Education increased her knowledge. As she became aware of the social struggles going on at that time, she was drawn towards social consciousness due to rationality. Helen joined the ongoing movement for the rights of women and the disabled. Throughout her life, she remained devoted to and fought for her social and economic justice movements. She campaigned tirelessly for the rights of women and people with disabilities, participating in movements such as suffrage, labor rights, and education and employment.
Keller was a co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), formed in 1920. In the field of civil rights, she organized many campaigns, gave lectures, gave speeches in protests. Her tireless efforts paved the way for legislative reforms that improved the lives of millions of needy people with disabilities. Why did Helen Keller feel the need to do socio-economic movements despite being from a well-to-do family? The fuel behind her choice to fight for the rights of the underprivileged was the influence of the socialist-communist movement on her.
At that time, socialist-communist movements around the world were gaining strength from the role of creating a new world. Keller’s literary contributions are equally significant. Keller’s understanding of socialism developed through contact with progressive thinkers and activists of her time. Influenced by scientists such as Alexander Graham Bell and John Dewey, Keller embraced socialist ideals to achieve greater equality and justice in society. She saw socialism not only as an economic system but as a moral imperative to uplift the marginalized and ensure equal opportunities for all.
For workers’ rights and labour reforms, Keller firmly believed that there was no alternative to a socialist system. She began speaking out against economic inequality, recognizing the exploitation and suffering of working-class individuals. Keller believed that collective action and solidarity among workers was necessary to combat injustice and improve working conditions.
In 1919, Keller attended one of Chaplin’s concerts while on tour in New York. Chaplin was impressed by Keller’s determination, intelligence, and ability to overcome enormous obstacles, and they became friends. Charlie Chaplin, who brought joy and laughter to audiences around the world across language barriers and cultural differences, was also influenced by anti-imperialism and socialist egalitarianism. A few years later, he was forced to leave the US due to government persecution on charges of being a Communist. Their friendship with Keller grew stronger because of their similar ideological stances. Keller campaigned tirelessly for the rights of people with disabilities, emphasizing the importance of education, accessibility and equal opportunities. Through his films and public persona, Chaplin addressed issues of poverty, injustice, and the human condition, using humour as a tool for social commentary and change. Both Keller and Chaplin used their platforms for social justice and humanitarian causes.
Helen Keller actively supported the civil rights movement in America. She advocated for equal rights and opportunities for African Americans through her writings, speeches, and activism against racism and violence. Keller emphasized the importance of education, empowerment, and access to opportunity for all individuals, regardless of race or background. She believed in the inherent dignity and equality of every human being and used her platform to challenge social norms and promote inclusiveness.
Keller’s writings and speeches often boldly tackle themes of justice, compassion, and the importance of collective action to overcome oppression. She called on Americans to break out of their old, entrenched, outdated prejudices and work together for a society based on more socio-economic justice where all people can flourish.
Although Keller faced criticism and challenges throughout her life, she remained steadfast in her beliefs and continued to fight for civil rights until her death in 1968. Her legacy continues to inspire individuals and movements around the world, recognizing the importance of unity in the ongoing struggle for justice and the fight against discrimination, and as a militant activist in the struggle for equality.
Keller’s commitment to socialism was also reflected in her internationalist outlook. She opposed war and militarism, instead advocating peaceful resolution of conflicts and international cooperation. Keller believed that unity between nations and cultures was important to fostering global harmony and addressing shared challenges such as poverty and discrimination. In her writings and speeches, Keller articulated her socialist beliefs, emphasizing the need for a society in which human well-being could be prioritized over profit. Helen Keller’s visit to India in 1937 left an indelible mark on the country, inspiring countless individuals and her fight for disability rights and social justice. Keller’s visit to India was not only a personal journey but also an important moment in India’s freedom struggle and social reforms. During her visit, Keller met various political leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi, with whom she shared ideals of nonviolence, social justice, and human rights. Keller was greatly influenced by Gandhi’s philosophy and his efforts to uplift the marginalized and promote equality in Indian society.
During this time she gave inspirational speeches in India and interacted with audiences across the country. She emphasized on education, empowerment and equal opportunities for persons with disabilities, challenging social perception and their inclusion in all aspects of life. After this, when she came back to India in 1955, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was the Prime Minister of India. It was an important moment in the life of both of them. Nehru, a politician known for his progressive ideals and leadership in India’s freedom movement, was deeply impressed by Keller’s work. Keller praised Nehru’s dedication to building a modern, democratic India and his efforts to eradicate poverty and promote education. Their visit was not just a diplomatic encounter but a meeting on issues of equality, human rights and social reform. Their correspondence continued for a long time after this visit.
She wrote several books including her autobiography “The Story of My Life”, which is a poignant testament to her struggles and triumphs. Keller’s writings not only shed light on her personal journey, but advocate compassion, understanding, and the inherent dignity of every person.

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