Through viewing a video about Helen Keller’s life, examining a 1904 photograph of Keller, and reading excerpts of her autobiography, students will learn about Helen Keller’s commitment to advocating for equal treatment for people with disabilities. The lesson concludes with students choosing a quotation that best represents Keller’s challenges and successes.
20 - 40 minutes
- Negligence - failure to take proper care
- Resilience - the ability to withstand hardship or pain
Braille - A tactile system of writing that uses raised dots to enable blind and visually impaired people to read. The system was developed in 1809 by Louis Braille, a fifteen-year-old blind French boy. Braille is not a language, but instead is a technique to make writing in a variety of languages, including the “languages” of math and music, comprehensible to the visually impaired.
Learn more about Braille:
Human Rights – Basic rights that belong to every person regardless of nationality, gender, religion, race, ethnicity, etc.
Learn more about Human Rights:
Americans with Disabilities Act – Passed in 1990, this legislation prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, transportation, public accommodation, communications, and governmental activities.
Learn more about the Americans with Disabilities Act:
- Americans with Disabilities Act Celebrates 25th Anniversary
- Making PE Accessible for Students With Disabilities
Background on Helen Keller | Author, Advocate, and Activist
In the years following the Civil War, many illnesses and disabilities were poorly understood. Being disabled posed great obstacles, and society had made few, if any, accommodations for the visually impaired.
Helen Keller was born to plantation owners in 1880 with all of her senses intact, developing speech and the ability to walk at a remarkably early age. However, at 19 months, a mysterious illness then referred to as “brain fever” took away her sight and her hearing.
In the following years, Keller became increasingly frustrated with her inability to communicate. As she grew older, she became unruly and wild; a normal life seemed beyond her reach.
Keller’s parents didn’t want to institutionalize her. They traveled far and wide to find help and, finally, with the assistance of Alexander Graham Bell, found Anne Sullivan, a recent graduate of Boston’s Perkins Institute for the blind.
Sullivan moved in with the family, committed to turning Keller’s life around. She struggled to teach Keller that objects and actions have names; she spelled words out in Keller’s hand, but the child never seemed to connect the words to the objects she was interacting with.
Then one day, suddenly, as Keller felt water from the well running over her one hand while Sullivan spelled out W-A-T-E-R in the other, she made the connection. Keller patted the ground and Sullivan immediately spelled out G-R-O-U-N-D in her hand. From that moment forward, Keller was ready and eager to learn. Sullivan succeeded in teaching her finger spelling and soon inspired her to seek a formal education.
Over the next 20 years, Keller worked to develop intelligible speech. She started with speech classes, enrolled at a school for the deaf, and finally moved on to college. By then, in addition to speech, she had mastered touch-lip reading, Braille, and typing.
With Sullivan always at her side, Keller succeeded in writing her first book, The Story of My Life. At the age of 24, she graduated cum laude from Radcliffe College (now part of Harvard University).
Keller’s next mission was to help others. She used her new-found celebrity to speak on behalf of people with disabilities. She joined the American Federation for the Blind and founded Helen Keller International, an organization devoted to combatting blindness and malnutrition worldwide. She also supported women’s rights issues such as suffrage and contraception.
Keller received many honors, including the Distinguished Service Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and induction into the Women’s Hall of Fame. Keller was a popular figure—a first in a line of advocates that worked to move society toward acceptance and accommodation of the needs of people with disabilities.
In 1961, at the age of 80, Keller had a series of strokes. As a result, she retired to her home in Connecticut. On June 1, 1968, at the age of 87, she passed away in her sleep.
The award-winning film The Miracle Worker is based on Keller’s book. Today many people visit her childhood home in Alabama, now a museum, to see where Keller’s incredible journey began.
- Ask students:
Have you ever struggled to learn a new skill or grasp a new concept? What was required to help you to succeed?
- Introduce Helen Keller:
Helen Keller was unable to see or hear, but she eventually managed to become educated, to travel the world, and to advocate for equal treatment for people with disabilities.
Video and Class Discussion (10 minutes)
Distribute the Graphic Organizer for students to fill out while viewing the video.
Discussion questions after viewing:
What most surprises you about what Helen Keller was able to achieve in spite of her disabilities?
What characteristics do you think Annie Sullivan needed in order to reach Helen Keller?
How might Helen Keller’s life have been different as a turn-of-the century American woman had she not lost her sight and her hearing?
Examining Primary Sources
Visual Primary Source Activity (5 minutes)
Project or make copies of the image to the right: a photograph of Helen Keller, taken in 1904 and printed in The Century Magazine in January of 1905 to accompany an article she had written for the magazine. Published from 1880 through 1930, The Century Magazine was an illustrated monthly periodical that was popular around the turn of the century, particularly among wealthy people who supported Progressive causes. One of Keller’s autobiographies, The World I Live In, was originally published in the magazine as a series of essays.
- What message does this image of Helen Keller communicate to the viewer?
- Why do you think the photograph includes a rose and a book? What do these items indicate about Keller’s abilities and disabilities?
- What is the role of texture in this image? What do you think Keller’s shirt would feel like? What about the stems and petals of the rose? What about the pages of the book on her lap?
Written Primary Source Activity (30 minutes)
Students will read four different excerpts from Helen Keller’s autobiography, The Story of My Life. This will work well as a “jigsaw” activity in which students share different responses to the same overarching question.
Download the Written Primary Source Activity [PDF].
This can be done as an in-class follow-up to the lesson, as a homework assignment or as a multi-day in-class project.
To be completed using the Graphic Organizer.
Distribute a list of quotations attributed to Helen Keller (can be found at here or at other similar websites). Ask students to choose the quotation that they think best represents Keller’s achievements, even though she was blind and deaf at time when there were very limited opportunities for people with disabilities. Students should give a written explanation of their choice. As an extension activity, have students write these quotations in Braille using instructions from this website.