After becoming deaf and blind at age two, Helen Keller faced her challenges with a singular optimism and strength. She became a trailblazing advocate for disability rights, and the first person who was deaf and blind to earn a college degree in the United States. She graduated in 1904, at a time when women were significantly outnumbered by men in higher education, special education was in its infancy, and the disability rights movement was just beginning to pick up steam.
Keller’s mastery of multiple forms of communication, and lifelong activism on behalf of people with disabilities, women, Black people, and other socially sidelined groups, brought her international celebrity. She lectured throughout the U.S. and abroad, and authored 14 books, including a famous memoir published in 1905, The Story of My Life, which was translated into 50 languages and remains in print.
While Keller embraced the limelight, she did so in order to campaign for fair treatment and equal rights for everyone, regardless of gender, race, or disability. She supported the growth of several major U.S. institutions, including Helen Keller International, the ACLU, and the NAACP. She believed true happiness came from helping and working in partnership with others, aligning oneself with a higher purpose, and from within oneself.
“When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us,” she wrote in 1929. Helen Keller was a passionate proponent of hope and courage in the face of adversity, and her words continue to inspire. Here are 10 of her most well-known and poignant statements.
A happy life consists not in the absence, but in the mastery of hardships.
Keller was born in 1880 in Alabama. When she was two years old, she became deaf and blind due to a fever. Her early childhood was reportedly filled with tantrums and disruptive behaviors. But when Keller was seven years old, her parents hired Anne Sullivan, a recent graduate from the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, Massachusetts, to work with their daughter. Sullivan’s arrival and her persistent and creative instruction were a turning point in Keller’s life.
Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement; nothing can be done without hope.
After initial struggles, a breakthrough occurred when Sullivan repeatedly ran water over one of Keller’s palms while finger spelling the word “water” into the other. After many tries, Keller was able to connect the tactile experience of flowing water with the letter signals.
After comprehending the sign for water, she was able to learn 30 more signs that same day. Working with Sullivan stoked her ambitions to pursue an education and learn to speak. Keller was eventually able to communicate through finger spelling, typing, Braille, touch-lip reading, and speech.
I would rather walk with a friend in the dark, than alone in the light.
The friendship that developed between Keller and her mentor, Sullivan, spanned decades, and the pair lived together during different periods of their lives. Like Keller, Sullivan was a member of the disability community — she had vision impairments that increased as she aged.
One can never consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar.
During her teenage years and young adulthood, Keller painstakingly learned to speak in a way that could be understood by people who could hear. She went to multiple schools for people who were deaf and a preparatory school for women before setting her sights on a new goal: attending college.
Meanwhile, Keller’s advancements became publicly known and drew the attention of influential people including Mark Twain, Alexander Graham Bell, and Henry H. Rogers, an oil magnate who offered to pay Keller’s tuition for Radcliffe College. In 1899, when she passed her entrance exams, only 36% of college students were women.
Sullivan accompanied Keller at Radcliffe, interpreting in classes, until Keller graduated cum laude in 1904 at age 24. She was the first individual who was blind and deaf to earn a higher education degree in the U.S. Her autobiography, The Story of My Life, was published a year later in 1905 and was widely read.
Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.
After graduation, Keller set out to share what she had learned and to advocate for people with disabilities. From universities to the halls of Congress, she lectured and testified on her experiences in support of blind and deaf communities. She is considered an early pioneer of the disability rights movement, which began to pick up steam in the early 1900s.
Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.
Keller participated in numerous social movements of her era, including women's suffrage. In 1915, she cofounded Helen Keller International to address blindness and malnutrition around the world. She also helped found the ACLU and was an active member in the American Federation for the Blind, the Socialist Party, and other organizations. Despite being raised in the post-Reconstruction era South, she supported the recently founded NAACP advocating for civil rights for Black people.
Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.
Keller was an intrepid world traveler and activist. In 1946, she became the counselor of international relations for the American Foundation for Overseas Blind. During the next 11 years, she spread her message across five continents and 35 countries. For her efforts, Keller was awarded several honorary degrees and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her autobiography inspired the 1957 television drama The Miracle Worker, as well as a Broadway play and film of the same title.
No pessimist ever discovered the secrets of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted island, or opened a new heaven to the human spirit.
Despite facing many challenges, Keller lived a life full of meaning and happiness before her death in 1968 at age 87. Sullivan died in 1936 at the age of 70, after becoming nearly blind. She spent much of her life by Keller’s side. Beginning with a single hand sign, the impact of these two women’s accomplishments rippled throughout the global disability rights community, and beyond. Through the words Keller worked so hard to impart, their story endures today as a beacon of hope and possibility.
Photo credit: Bettmann/ Contributor/ Getty Images