The Miracle with Helen Keller

The Hollywood film, ‘The Miracle Worker’ portrays the difficulty Keller experienced in learning a language, when she was just a child, and it’s synonymous with the mystery surrounding Keller because she learned how to converse, despite being both deaf and blind; Keller might have had a late start in life with language, but that didn’t deter her from having her own special voice

Hellen Keller was an American deaf-blind person, who found international stardom in her life for her penmanship, activism and for being the first deaf-blind person to earn a university degree. Helen was inflicted with a rare illness, in my point of view, which makes  it impossible for her to learn Braille – the language that blind people use to read and write, or learn sign language – the language that deaf people use to communicate, because she is both deaf and blind. Keller can neither learn Braille to express herself because she’s unable to hear (and feel through touch) and associate a word with an object, like blind people do when they have learnt Braille, nor is she able to see and learn sign language and then also associate a sign with an object, like deaf people do when they have learnt sign language.

It’s an extraordinarily different kind of illness and this sets Keller apart from people with disabilities just like her: those who are deaf or those who are blind, but never both together – millions of people around the world are sadly blind, or deaf. And yet Helen, who is doubly more disabled than a blind or deaf person, miraculously overcomes her personal barriers to become just like any woman in the world. The reason behind this is Helen’s teacher: Anne Sullivan, who’s blind herself and astoundingly lacking in reading/writing abilities; Anne eventually became Helen’s governess and even earned her companionship – the two had a forty-nine-year-long relationship, despite what’s portrayed in the movie The Miracle Worker (1962), which was based on Helen’s autobiography.

The Miracle Worker (1962)

In the movie, Helen Keller (Patty Duke) constantly has violent and uncontrollable outbursts because given that Keller’s both blind and deaf since birth, Keller is unable to converse or express herself. Anne Sullivan (Anne Bancroft) then turns things around for Keller when she teaches her to associate an object with a sign, which describes it. Both Braille and sign language had long been invented since Keller’s birth in the 1880s but despite being from a relatively well-to-do family (Keller’s from an army background, which runs really deep), Helen is unable to use either to express herself because of her disease.

Born in 1880 at a homestead in Alabama, Helen Keller initially had no defects in eyesight or hearing. But when she was only a little over a year old, Keller was inflicted with either scarlet fever or meningitis – both her brain and stomach was in a congested state; it’s a medical condition, which can be described as both her organs were blocked up because it’s filled with something too much; this medical condition, in the end, made Keller both deaf and blind.

Before Sullivan entered her life, Helen was able to communicate with the home cook’s daughter using signs and her vocabulary eventually expanded to include sixty signs, which had certain similarities to both sign and spoken languages and she would use this to converse with her family. This means that Helen could construct simple sentences and also words and they they are kind of similar to each other even though each sign is isolated from another.

It’s extraordinary that Helen even had a vocabulary of her own, or learned to communicate in the end because she almost evolved into a wild child, brought up in isolation and these kinds of deaf children mostly don’t exhibit signs of any knowledge over language – they have extreme difficulty with the learning of a language. Helen had already taught herself how to live with her disabilities but when Kate Adams (Helen’s mother) learned from Charles Dickens’ American Notes of the education of another deaf-blind woman (Laura Bridgman), Adams made Keller visit a physician specialized in eye, ear, nose and throat, who referred her to Alexander Graham Bell (the inventor of the telephone), who in turn suggested Kate drop by the Perkins Institute for the Blind, where Bridgman had been taught.

Anne Sullivan was approached for Helen Keller when she was only twenty-years-old, and Anne was a former student at Perkins. In March 1887, Sullivan and Keller begin their association. At first, it’s not an easy one because Keller is frustrated she cannot grasp that every object is associated with a word, which describes what it is. In one shocking episode: when Anne attempts to teach Keller the word for ‘mug’, Keller’s frustration leads her to break the mug. The following month, Keller finally gets her big break in expressing herself: her teacher runs cool water over Keller’s one palm, and makes motions on Keller’s other palm – this makes Keller identify what water is, but with symbols, instead of words.

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Author: Osmi Anannya

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