Helen Keller is the next civil rights leader in my series of portrait paintings.
According to Perkins School for the Blind, many only know Helen Keller as an advocate for people with disabilities, but don’t know she was also a suffragist, civil rights pioneer and global ambassador.
Keller, born in 1880 in Alabama, contracted an illness before age 2 that left her blind and deaf. Her frustration with her challenges and her inability to communicate left her nearly impossible to manage, and some believed Keller should be institutionalized. Her mother, Katherine Adams Keller, searched tirelessly for alternatives, and eventually found Keller a teacher, Anne Sullivan. Under Sullivan’s tutelage, Keller learned to read and write, and eventually graduated cum laude from Radcliffe College. She was the first person with deafblindness to graduate from college. She also published 14 books – including a bestselling autobiography.
Keller traveled and lectured, working tirelessly to improve the lives of those with disabilities. But, she was also an original founder of the American Civil Liberties Union. Keller was an outspoken Socialist, and among her favored causes were women’s right to vote and access birth control.
According to the Perkins School, during her lifetime, Keller met every U.S. president, beginning with Grover Cleveland and ending with John F. Kennedy and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Johnson. She even represented the U.S. government abroad as Goodwill Ambassador in 1948 when sent to Japan to advocate for Japan’s blind and disabled population.
Although Keller died in 1968 at the age of 87, her legacy continues through The Helen Keller Foundation, which aims to promote awareness of hearing and vision issues and raises money for research and education.
To make my painting even more meaningful and symbolic of Keller’s contributions, I plan to add three of Helen Keller’s quotes — in Braille — that spoke to who she was as a person.
“Many of us delude ourselves with the thought that if we could stand in the lot of our more fortunate neighbor, we could live better, happier and more useful lives. … It is my experience that unless we can succeed in our present position, we could not succeed in any other.” — Speech delivered at the Kent Street Reformed Church, Brooklyn, NY, 1927
“A person who is severely impaired never knows his hidden sources of strength until he is treated like a normal human being and encouraged to shape his own life.”— Teacher, 1955
“The highest result of education is tolerance.” — My Key of Life, 1926
I am grateful to the American Printing House for the Blind for transcribing these quotes into braille.
Feature image credit: Larry Burrows