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Helen Keller

Robert Shetterly, acrylic ©2004

Helen Keller was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama on June 27, 1880. She lost her sight and hearing at the age of 19 months. With the help of her teacher, Anne Sullivan, Helen became the first blind-deaf person to effectively communicate with the sighted and hearing world, and accordingly became an international celebrity. But recognition of her triumph over her disability was bittersweet. As she wrote to Robert La Follette in 1924:

I have hesitated to write to you because I know that the newspapers ... will cry out at the 'pathetic exploitation of deaf and blind Helen Keller' ...So long as I confine my activities to social service and the blind, they compliment me extravagantly, calling me... 'wonder woman' ...But when it comes to a discussion of poverty, and I maintain that it is the result of wrong economics-that the industrial system under which we live is at the root of much of the physical deafness and blindness in the world-that is a different matter. It is laudable to give aid to the handicapped. Superficial charities make smooth the way of the prosperous; but to advocate that all human beings should have leisure and comfort, the decencies and refinements of life, is a Utopian dream...

Helen Keller was a formidably intelligent and articulate woman who passionately advocated for people with disabilities, and the working poor. She joined the US Socialist Party in 1909 and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) soon after. She campaigned against World War I, advocated reproductive rights and votes for women and supported Lenin, the Bolsheviks, and the Russian Revolution. The FBI kept her under illegal surveillance for most of her adult life. She died in 1968.