The trouble with people who overcome enormous obstacles in their lives and change the world in doing so is that we tend to think of them as heroes, as larger-than-life super-humans whom we admire but could never emulate.
Terry Fox, for example. We look at the magnitude of his accomplishment and feel awe and enormous gratitude, but do something similar ourselves? Ridiculous.
These heroic figures who appear among us from time to time are like secular saints, people who are better than we are, worthy of our praise and even reverence, but somehow out of reach. As the monuments go up, and the names of the heroes are attached to public buildings, and books and articles are written about them, they recede more and more from the real world they inhabited until we almost don’t recognize them any longer for what they were: ordinary human beings who behaved in extraordinary ways.
Self-pity is our worst enemy and if we yield to it, we can never do anything good in the world.
Of these, maybe none is more remarkable than Helen Keller. It is almost impossible to imagine her early life in 1880s Alabama, when, because of a childhood illness that might have been scarlet fever, she became blind and deaf at the age of nineteen months. Even today, the challenges facing a child in this situation would be enormous. Her success at overcoming the enormous double handicap of blindness and deafness, as a female, is no doubt part of the great appeal of her story.
Had she “merely” learned to communicate through sign language and Braille so that she could receive the kind of education made available to most girls of her time, her story would be remarkable. That she went on to become the first deaf blind person to graduate from a university (Radcliffe) only adds to her mystique.
But her real contribution to the world, the reason we remember her today, was her work as an advocate for the disabled. She became famous as a champion for the blind and the deaf and for people with other disabilities, founding the Helen Keller Foundation in 1915, for the study of vision and health.
But she was no one-dimensional “goodie-goodie,” universally admired.
Helen Keller was often denounced for her radical political views. She embraced pacifism, suffragism, socialism, at a time when these positions were extremely unpopular in the United States. She was a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union and a member of the American Socialist Party. She spoke out against big business, in favour of workers and trade unionism and was a proponent of birth control at a time when that was considered the depth of immorality by many.
In her work on behalf of the blind, she came to realize that many who were blind had become so because of social reasons, unsafe, exploitative conditions in factories, prostitution (which often led to syphilis), poverty and poor nutrition. In denouncing the social causes of this public health issue, she became a target for the right-wing, who blamed her “errors” on her disabilities.
There are many reasons to admire Helen Keller: her strength of character in refusing to let her handicaps stop her from achieving what she knew she was capable of is perhaps the most inspiring.
Keller died in 1968. By then she had been honoured in dozens of ways, met every US president from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon B Johnson, who awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964.
Her life story has been told in many ways, including in her autobiography, The Story of My Life, but perhaps the best-known portrayal of her is in the movie The Miracle Worker, based on the play of the same name. It tells the story of her early life, how Anne Sullivan, a young teacher from New York, found the way to break into the darkness and silence in which Helen Keller was imprisoned, and let the light in and Keller’s spirit out.