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Jamie Trescavage
Mr. Trescavage
Sophomore Language Arts
March 18, 2010

       Out of the Darkness and Silence: Helen Keller’s Advocacy for Disabled Americans

       Helen Keller was once quoted as saying, “I have made my limitations tools of

learning and joy” (Smith). The limitations Keller spoke of—deafness and blindness caused

by a “brain fever” at the age of 19 months—were neither a tool nor joyful when she was

young (Kushner). But when a teacher opened the up world, through words, to young Keller,

a woman with a thirst for knowledge and social justice was unleashed. Despite a childhood

plagued by darkness and communication barriers, Helen Keller’s written words helped open

the public’s eyes and shine a light on the many social inequalities faced by millions of

handicapped Americans, supporting lawsuits like Brown vs. Board of Education and helping

lay the foundation for new laws, like the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990).

       When Anne Sullivan, Keller’s teacher, arrived from Boston’s Perkins School in

March of 1887, Keller could barely communicate with the outside world (Kushner). Sullivan

brought finger-spelling—a form of sign language where finger positions represent numbers

and letters—with her to teach Keller (“Finger”). They started with the word “doll” and after

a period of struggle, Sullivan broke through to Keller with the word “water,” a word she had

spoken as a child (Kushner). Keller often used the analogy of her world being veiled in

darkness before Sullivan taught her of the connections between her finger-spelled words and

actual objects, writing, “Have you ever been at sea in a dense fog, when it seemed as if a

tangible white darkness shut you in, and the great ship, tense and anxious, groped her way

toward the shore with plummet and sounding line, and you waited with beating heart for

something to happen? I was like that ship before my education began, only I was without

compass or sounding line and had no way of knowing how near the harbor was (Keller).”

While Sullivan brought light into Keller’s world and gave her empty vessel some definite
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direction, her struggles to understand language and her quest to quench her thirst for

knowledge were not an easy journey.

       Keller once wrote, “The more things I handled things and learned their names and

uses, the more joyous and confident grew my sense of kinship with the rest of the world

(Kushner).” Her confidence and joy led her and Anne Sullivan to leave the Keller’s home in

Alabama, traveling to Boston first so Keller could attend the Perkins School for the Blind,

and then to New York, where she could receive training to help with speech (Kushner). She

was quickly tearing down the barriers of communication, progressing so rapidly that college

began a distinct reality for her. At the twenty years old, she was accepted to Radcliffe

College in Boston after passing demanding entrance examinations in German, French, Latin,

English, Greek, and on the history of the Roman Empire (Kushner). Despite spending the

first five years of her life trapped in darkness, she graduated from Radcliffe College with

honors and went on to become a successful, honored and, most importantly, contributing

member of society (Lauer).

       Keller used her status and fame to begin to build a platform of change that would

result in major advancements for the handicapped citizens of America. She once wrote about

the moment she understood the meaning of finger spelling to her friend Alexander Graham

Bell, American inventor of the telephone, stating, “My fingers still glow with the fee of the

first word that opened its golden heart to me. How everything seemed to think, to live!

(Smith).” Keller wished to share this wondrous feeling to all those who lived in similar

darkness, through both education and equality.

       In 1954, the United States Supreme Court ruled in the favor of Brown v. the Board of

Education of Topeka, Kansas, which dismantled the legal basis for racial segregation in

schools and other public facilities (“Brown”). The law was a very important building block

for the foundation of human rights in America. At its core, Brown v. Board of Education
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became about more than just race, helping to spark a change in which prejudged,

discriminated against, and stereotyped people based on their ethnic, religious, physical, or

cultural differences (“Brown”). Prior to Brown’s revision of the American educational

system, many people with physical disabilities like Keller’s or mental disabilities were

considered to only have a limited ability to grasp instruction and pre-academic subjects, such

as the alphabet, number knowledge, and reading (Kilewer). Therefore, they were secluded

from the rest of the student population and not given an opportunity to succeed. Keller and

other advocates spoke out against such narrow-minded ideas, championing her as an example

of what can be accomplished by someone with a handicap when they are not excluded. She

was lauded as a timeless icon and an inspiration to all; not as a needy, useless person

(Kleege).

       Throughout Keller’s life, she was very interested in public service. She met every

American president from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon B. Johnson—seven in total (Kushner).

Many of the presidents sought out Keller for opinions on developing rights and laws for

helping disabled Americans, an honor that earned her the Presidential Medal of Freedom,

given to America’s most respected civilians (Kushner). Keller’s political connections

allowed her Helen Keller Foundation to gain traction when it came to both helping people

worldwide with vision loss and influencing politicians develop rights and opportunities for

the disabled (Kushner). Though she supported groups like the NAACP, advocated women’s

rights, and spoke out against child labor and capital punishment, Keller’s biggest advocacy

involved the disabled (Eldred). One of the most monumental pieces of legislation in the last

fifty years is the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (“Facts”). Heavily supported by

The Helen Keller Foundation, the law prohibits “private employers, state and local

governments, employment agencies and labor unions from discriminating against qualified

individuals with disabilities in job application procedures, hiring, firing, advancement,
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compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment”

(“Facts”). Ultimately, Keller did not want special or preferential treatment because of her

handicap, but to level the playing field for all people instead, stating, “the marvelous richness

of human experience would lose something of rewarding joy if there were no limitations to

overcome” (Lauer).

       Although she had a limited ability to speak, Helen Keller’s written words voiced a

strong and clear message that every American, handicapped or not, was to be treated equally.

While she freely admitted limitations, she used them not as a crutch, but tools to sharpen her

convictions that a handicap is a lesson to be taught, not a wasted opportunity. Keller used her

education to tear down barriers established by old laws and her fame to build up new laws

which have helped level the playing field for millions of Americans.
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                                       Works Cited

“Brown v. Board of Education: About The Case.” Brownvboard.org. 3 March 2010

       <http://brownvboard.org/summary/>

Eldred, Sheila. “A Touching Friendship: Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan.” New Moon. 5

       (1997): 38-39. 1 March 2010 <hwwilsonweb.com>

“Facts About the Americans with Disabilities Act.” eeoc.gov. 3 March 2010

       <http://www.eeoc.gov/facts/fs-ada.html>

“Finger spelling.” Merriam-Webster.com. 2 March 2010 <http://www.aolsvc.merriam-

       webster.aol.com/medical/finger+spelling>

Keller, Helen. “1887 Alabama: The Living Word.” Lapham’s Quarterly. 10. 17 (2001): 67-

       69. 2 March 2010 <hwwilsonweb.com>

Kleege, Georgina. “The Helen Keller Who Still Matters.” Raritan. 1. 24 (2004): 100-112.

       1 March 2010 <hwwilsonweb.com>

Kliewer, Christopher, Douglas Biklen, and Christi Kasa-Hendrickson. “Who May Be

       Literate? Disability and Resistance to the Cultural Denial of Competence.”

       American Educational Research Journal. 43. 2 (2006): 163-192. 1 March 2010 <

Kushner, Sherrill. “’Meet Helen Keller’.” Los Angeles Times. 27 June 2005. 1 March 2010

       <discoverer.prod.sirs.com>

Lauer, Charles. “Character Makes the Difference.” Modern Healthcare. 32. 40 (2002): 26.

       1 March 2010 <hwwilsonweb.com>

Smith, J. David. “The Challenge of Advocacy: The Different Voices of Helen Keller and

       Burton Blatt.” Mental Retardation. 35. (1997): 138-140. 1 March 2010

       <hwwilsonweb.com>

				
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