A Notable, Inimitable Woman: Helen Keller, 1880 – 1968

Here is an outline of my research for a course on Notable Women last session at Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Yavapai College. I was fascinated by the question: what happened to the rest of her life after the incidents portrayed in the “Miracle Worker” plays and movies. As my reading progressed to reveal her decades of activist publication and public attention, the deeper question became “how did she cognitively process so many other writings and human contacts into coherent and relevant materials that sustained her spirit and finances?”.


speaking personally, as I’ve portrayed earlier in this blog, I have rewired my brain to read and write differently without using vision. Now, the Internet and trusty screen readers and RSS clients bring me loads of information, but I still find it difficult to organize even a small article like this post. Keller published many articles in popular publications like “Ladies Home Journal” but she also emoted some very fine rants on socialism, unions, suffrage, and disability civil rights.


Answering my questions from the resources below, especially the New Yorker article, she: mastered French and German at Radcliffe; read European newspapers; always had personal assistants; selected topics of interest for her human readers to communicate by hand tapping, lip reading, or Braille translation; wrote sections on a Braille typewriter, assembled and edited with assistance; wrote and received copious letters in the style of the time; made friends with Mark Twain, Alexander Graham Bell, and the presidents du jour; traveled extensively; and generally got around a lot. Whew! But still, how does one assemble a model of the world coming without hearing or seeing? The New Yorker article portrays her cognitive functioning as much like poetry or highly flowery narrative. That is, she took in facts and physical object descriptions, asked questions, built a sense of her surroundings, and embellished with imagination constrained by her editorial assistants. Yet, there is such a difference experiencing the situation of labor unions from a film like “Norma Rae” and reading about sweat shops and factory safety mishaps. It still intrigues me that her reality matched sufficiently her colleagues and acquaintances that she could not only participate but also influence her times. Interestingly, some of that interaction came from a silent movie, vaudeville infomercial’s, and an attraction for press attention that vies with modern athletes and actors.


Yet, that same cognitive generative process caused lifelong doubts in others about her actual abilities versus the influences of Teacher and other assistants. A bizarre accusation of plagiarism arose at age 12 when professional pride and pettiness ran amok over a misunderstanding of originality of a story she told in a letter. Now, today we cannot get college students to differentiate copy-paste research from critical thinking, so one wonders how a 12-year-old could really appreciate the social significance of separating what one is told, holds in memory, and retrieves as a story gift from copyright and issues of attribution.


Well, anyway, if you wonder how minds work with different sensory limitations, take a look at the documentary on Youtube, the New Yorker analysis, and some of the cited oddball life passages.

Background</h3

Other facets not highlighted in documentary and popular bios

Finally, I think HK would have been great on Twitter, with pithy, passionate expressions of her daily insights, frustrations, and relationships. Happy 5th birthday, Twitter and many thanks to Accessible Twitter for keeping me in touch with the world.

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