“The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.” Helen Keller
“We twirl across the deck like two untouchable stars, twinkling as sunlight glints off the sea around us.”
If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll know that I consider myself to be a speech-language pathologist who writes. As an slp, I have heroes and people in the industry I admire: one such person in Anne Sullivan. Although Anne wasn’t a licensed speech-language pathologist, she certainly was instrumental in facilitating communicative competence in Helen. Not everyone paid attention to Anne though, or dare I say “the woman behind the communication curtain,” although Mark Twain noticed. In fact, it was Mark who coined the term “miracle worker” in praise of Anne’s decades long and remarkable work with Helen.
I’m also deviating a bit with the photo. Instead of posting a picture of a statue (there are two if you want to explore; one with Helen in the “water pump” scene from The Miracle Worker, found at the capital build in Alabama and another one of Anne and Helen at the Tewksbury Alhouse in Alabama) this month I chose a postage stamp. Don’t get me wrong, I love statues but when I picked up a dozen stamps from the local post office, I felt empowered as I affixed stamps of Annie and Helen onto all my postage. It made me smile just thinking about all the recipients rediscovering this amazing duo.
Now, let’s talk about Anne. Born in 1866, her childhood rivaled that of Frank McCourt, writer of Angel’s Ashes (use poverty-stricken rural white southerners instead of Irish families and you get my drift.) When Anne was five she contracted an illness which left her partially blind. At age eight after both her parents died, she and her younger brother were sent to the home for the destitute (where her brother soon died). Amid rumors of extreme squalor and foul play investigators were sent to the home. Anne cornered one of them and shouted, “I want to go to school.” Her bravery worked and she was sent to The Perkins School for the Blind where she learned finger-spelling and braille. Anne thrived. At age 20, she graduated and got a job teaching a deaf-blind child to communicate, become socially adept, and gain literary skills. A tall task which she more than surpassed.
Helen’s turn now. Helen, author, disabilities advocate, political activist, humanitarian and renown lecturer, lost most of her sight and hearing at 19 months after suffering from a brain fever. Born in 1880 to affluent parents, doctors recommended institutionalization. Instead, her parents hired a young and inexperienced teacher. It worked. Together, they made history.
Anne became the “eyes and ears of the world,” although she herself was partially blind. Helen became the symbol of disability awareness. Their message was this; with hard work, education, training and discipline you could overcome a disability. Yes and no. It also required great teamwork and foresight. While it was Anne who helped Helen break the communication code (sounds form words and those words have meaning). Powerful stuff for a deaf- blind child to process. Anne continued to be a part of Helen’s life for decades (Helen even lived with Anne and her husband John Macy). She assisted Helen with her speaking engagements, travel plans, and writing (mainly done through either finger spelling or braille). She also interpreted her monologues (see YouTube- Helen Keller Speaks out). Even though Helen’s voice was mostly unintelligible from the viewpoint of an slp, Anne was able to sift through her prosody, inflection and vocal nuances to uncover her cryptic messages.
The Miracle Worker always makes me cry, especially the water pump scene- but, no, it wasn’t the inspiration for my career path (a story for another day). Here is where I usually encourage you to dot the landscapes with statues of remarkable women who’ve made great achievements to the matriarchy. But for Anne and Helen, I suggest you dot your postage with this remarkable partnership. Let’s honor and memorialize these two strong women, joined in the sisterhood of disabilities awareness. Oh, how high they soared!
Rock on, Ladies.