Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

Helen Keller and Me – Why it was “her doomed love life that really made me identify”

I’ve been legally blind since birth. Ever since I can remember, Helen Keller has been etched in my brain.

Like many disabled people, I’ve lived under the shadow of Helen Keller. With the exception of Franklin Delano Roosevelt who had polio, she’s the most famous disabled person in the world.

For decades, I’ve chafed against Keller. Until, I came to identify with her and respect her legacy. It took a while.

Helen Keller in a rowboat feeding a swan.

Helen Keller feeding swans, 1913

Keller, born in Tuscombia, Alabama, lived from 1880-1968. She became deaf and blind after an illness at the age of nineteen months. Anne Sullivan, herself visually impaired,  was sent by the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston to be Keller’s teacher.

“The Miracle Worker” was an Academy-Award winning film (and before that an acclaimed play and TV show). But, even as a kid, I hated the story of Keller, the wild child, being miraculously civilized by Anne Sullivan. If I’d known of the late disability activist Sheila Young’s phrase “inspiration porn,” I would have shouted it at the movie screen!

I had no love, either, for the images of Keller as a sexless, saintly woman that are the flip side of the wild child image. I’m all for doing good. But, from early on, I’ve known that I’m not asexual or saintly.

Nondisabled people sometimes assume that, because of my disability, I can’t have romance or marry. Often, they say, I shouldn’t worry about not being coupled up because I can be “like Helen Keller.”

Ironically, I began to identify with Keller after I met Anne, the love of my life.

Anne died in 2001 at age 46 from cancer. Marriage equality wasn’t on the horizon then. We knew, though we’d been together for 12 years in a loving relationship, that we couldn’t wed. When Anne had surgery, the hospital wouldn’t let me be with her. Until I said I was her sister.

If you mention Helen Keller, most people will think of either “inspiration” or of “overcoming” disability. “She achieved so much out of such a sad life,” a woman from Apple tech support said on learning I was writing about Keller, “She’s such an inspiration!”

There’s so much that’s not widely known about Keller.

She was an early supporter of the NAACP, a vaudeville performer, a feminist, a socialist, an author and a friend of Mark Twain.

I was thrilled to learn that Keller wasn’t a goody-two-shoes. I respect her commitment to progressive politics. I’d love to have been a fly on the wall when she and Mark Twain hung out.

But it was the story of her doomed love life that really made me identify with Keller.

In June 1916, when she was 36, Keller met and fell in love with a journalist named Peter Fagan. Fagan, like Keller, was a socialist. He communicated with Keller by fingerspelling into her hand. Without telling anyone, the couple made plans to marry. But, Anne Sullivan and Keller’s family disapproved of the marriage.

Keller’s “extended family vigorously squashed the relationship with forced midnight train trips out of town, an angry and gun-waving brother, and drama worthy of a bad novel,” historian Kim E. Nielsen writes in “Helen Keller: Selected Writings.”

At this point in her life, Keller was world-renowned. When she received her degree from Radcliffe College in 1904, she became the first DeafBlind woman to graduate college. She’d given lectures across the country and written several books. Yet Sullivan and Keller’s relatives “felt adamantly that marriage and childbearing were not options for a deaf-blind woman,” Nielsen writes.

At that time, this attitude was common. In some states and cities in the United States “ugly laws” prohibited people with disabilities from being out in public. Families often kept their disabled family members hidden. In many states, disabled women weren’t permitted to marry and have children.

Keller “apparently acquiesced” to her family’s and Sullivan’s disapproval of her marrying Fagan, Nielsen writes. As far as we know, Keller didn’t interact with Fagan again after their marriage was nixed.

“I corresponded with the young man for several months;” Keller wrote in her memoir “Midstream” about the aftermath of her romance with Fagan, “but my love-dream was shattered.”

In the years before marriage equality, I often thought of how Keller couldn’t marry the man she loved. My life was quite different from hers. I wasn’t world famous. Anne and I could live together. But I could see parallels.

Jean, my (now deceased) step-mom, loved me. But, “that’s absurd!” she said, when I mentioned that Anne and I had talked of having a child, “with your eyes like they are – you’re handicapped – how could you raise a child?”

People often saw Keller, because she was DeafBlind, as being incompetent. They couldn’t imagine her being supportive of other people or as supporting herself. The reality was different.

“I am paying my own passage through the world and am proud of it,” Keller told the Chicago Tribune.

Anne Sullivan was 14 years older than Keller. As she got older, Sullivan’s vision impairment worsened. Keller provided emotional support when Sullivan became ill or emotionally stressed.

When people saw me with Anne, they often assumed she was my caretaker. Sometimes, they were surprised that I knew how to pour a glass of milk, let alone earn money as a writer. Often, Anne and I would walk to a market in our neighborhood to buy groceries for dinner. “Where is the blind lady  you usually walk here,” a passerby asked Anne one night when I wasn’t with her. One afternoon, I went to the emergency room with Anne. She was writhing in pain from her cancer and shivering from a fever. But, the ER staffer thought I was sick. “What’s wrong with her?” she asked Anne.

Though it must have been terrible for Keller to have been unable to marry Fagan, she didn’t let prejudice ruin her spirits. Until she became ill in the last few years of her life, Keller didn’t stop working to make the world, as she said, “as I would like to see it.”

Keller’s unflagging commitment to human rights inspired me to do what I could to work for marriage equality. Keller had queer friends. She knew the gay literary critic Alexander Wolcott and socialized with the lesbian actress Katharine Cornell. Given the times they lived in, they may well have not been out to her or to each other.

It’s risky to speculate on how Keller, who came of age at the beginning of the 20th century and died the year before the Stonewall Uprising, would feel now about same-sex marriage. Yet, I can’t help but believe that if she were here today, she would cheer for marriage equality. For everyone, queer, nonqueer, disabled, nondisabled – everywhere.



♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ Support provided by Becoming Helen Keller has been made possible by and the following.

-This program includes historical descriptions of people with disabilities that many now consider offensive.

Viewer discretion is advised.

(Rebecca Alexander) My name is Rebecca Alexander.

I am narrating the Helen Keller documentary, and I am DeafBlind myself.

I have Usher syndrome, which is the leading cause of DeafBlindness in the U.S.

and around the world.

(male #1) Alright.

(Rebecca Alexander) Okay, so here... (male #1) Here's your chair.

Uh, Rick, I'm rolling. Are you okay?

(Rick) Yep.

(male #1) Rebecca, when you are.

(Rebecca Alexander) 3, 2, 1... October 7, 2009. Washington, D.C.

A statue of Helen Keller is about to be unveiled inside the Capitol.

A 600-pound bronze sculpture of a child standing near a water pump.

That moment, made famous in the 1962 film 'The Miracle Worker,' was the day the DeafBlind girl had a breakthrough with her teacher, Annie Sullivan.

(Helen Keller) Wa-- (Bob Riley) W-A-T-E-R.

This moment helped the world understand that all of us, regardless of any disability, have a mind that can be educated, a hand that can be trained.

(as Helen Keller) In large measure, we travel the same highways, read the same books, speak the same language, yet our experiences are different.

In all my experiences and thoughts, I am conscious of a hand.

Whatever moves me -- whatever thrills me -- is as a hand that touches me in the dark, and that touch is my reality.

(narrator voiceover) Keller lived to be 87.

Yet here she was put on a pedestal and frozen in time.

(Bob Riley) This extraordinary person showed us the power of a determined human spirit and reminded all of us that courage and strength can exist in the most unlikely places.

(Mary Klages) The images that we have of Helen Keller are a media creation.

She is a poster child.

She's too good to be true.

♪♪♪ (Georgina Kleege) The story, the overcoming, the saintly figure, I wish we could retire that.

(Susan Schweik) My primary image of Helen Keller growing up was from 'The Miracle Worker.'

And the total complexity of her adult life, her learnedness, her fieriness, her politics, her full adult being, all that is erased, and what we remember is 'wa-wa.'

♪♪♪ (Kim Nielsen) I came across lists from 1924 of what some people called the ten most dangerous women in America.

And Helen Keller was on this list.

And I actually remember laughing out loud, that Helen Keller was listed as one of the ten most dangerous women in America, and I wanted to know why.

(Rebecca Alexander) She was a pioneer, and she was such a trailblazer for so many of these civil rights and social movements in ways that none of us can really even quite comprehend.

But she had this innate curiosity.

(as Mark Twain) The two most interesting characters of the 19th century are Napoleon and Helen Keller.

Napoleon tried to conquer the world by physical force and failed.

Helen Keller tried to conquer the world by power of mind and succeeded.

♪♪♪ (as Helen Keller) I was too young to realize what had happened.

When I awoke and found that all was dark and still, I suppose I thought it was night, and I must've wondered why day was so long in coming.

Gradually, however, I got used to the silence and darkness.

(Douglas Baynton) Helen became blind and deaf at a year and a half.

And so she had already had some exposure to language, to the world of sound and sight.

And that has important implications for your later educational development.

(narrator voiceover) As a young girl, Helen used what Deaf people call 'home signs.'

(Douglas Baynton) Helen Keller had a sign for her mother that looked something like this.

She had a sign for her father that had to do with representing his eyeglasses.

She had signs for concrete actions like eating and drinking, that kind of thing.

(narrator voiceover) The Kellers lived in Tuscumbia, Alabama.

Helen's father, Arthur, had served in the Confederate Army and ran a small newspaper.

They were not rich and not sure how to guide their daughter.

(Douglas Baynton) The Kellers are working with very little information.

They could have sent her to a school for the Deaf or a school for the Blind, possibly, but that's not an ideal choice.

(Kim Nielsen) Helen's mother, Kate, was a very well-read woman.

And she at some point when Keller was small, read Charles Dickens' 'American Notes' of 1842.

And in that book, Charles Dickens talked about Laura Bridgman, another DeafBlind woman, who had been educated.

And Keller's mother, Kate, became very hopeful.

She wanted that same thing for her child.

She had resisted the institutionalization of Helen.

(narrator voiceover) Bridgman went to the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston, Massachusetts, where she learned to communicate with fingerspelling.

The Kellers appealed to the school's director, Michael Anagnos.

(Mary Klages) When Anagnos gets a letter from Captain Arthur Keller saying, 'We have a DeafBlind daughter.

Do you have anybody there that could teach her?'

Anagnos says, 'Yes, I do.

It's Annie Sullivan.'

(Annie Sullivan) When I saw Helen Keller first, she was 6 years and 8 months old.

She had been blind and deaf and mute since her 19th month, as the result of an illness.

She had no way of communicating with those around her, except a few imitative signs that she had made for herself.

A push meant 'go,' and a pull meant 'come,' and so on.

(narrator voiceover) Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller would be together for the next 50 years.

They were rarely ever separated.

(Georgina Kleege) Anne Sullivan, she came from this, uh... extremely deprived background.

It was really kind of a desperate situation.

(narrator voiceover) Sullivan suffered from trachoma -- a bacterial infection that caused vision loss.

She was a ward of the state and an illiterate 14-year-old when she arrived at Perkins.

Six years later, Annie graduated class valedictorian.

And after a series of eye operations, her vision had improved.

(Kim Nielsen) The career opportunities for a Blind woman at this point in time were incredibly small, and then here came this letter, seeking a teacher for a young DeafBlind girl.

(narrator voiceover) Once in Alabama, Sullivan recorded her experience in letters sent back to Boston.

(as Annie Sullivan) Somehow, I had expected to see a pale, delicate child, but there's nothing pale or delicate about Helen.

She is large, strong, and ruddy, and as unrestrained in her movements as a young colt.

(Mary Klages) Annie came to the Kellers' house and said, 'Before I can teach this child anything, I have to make an intervention,' as we would call it now.

The intervention is absolutely physical.

It can't be anything else because Helen doesn't have language yet.

This is the shock in 'The Miracle Worker' when it first appeared on the Broadway stage.

It brought Helen's physicality, it brought her body to the center of the stage.

And she says, 'The miracle has occurred.

She will obey me.'

(as Annie Sullivan) The back of the greatest obstacle in the path of progress is broken.

'No' and 'yes' have become facts, as apparent to her as hot and cold.

(narrator voiceover) Annie taught Helen the manual tactile alphabet.

Letter by letter, she fingerspelled whole sentences into Helen's hands.

(Georgina Kleege) Her accomplishment was that she made the observation that a hearing child learns language because they're always surrounded by language.

Once she, uh, was with Keller, she was fingerspelling to her constantly, dawn to dusk, so that Keller kind of picked up language in a more natural way.

♪♪♪ (narrator voiceover) Annie taught Helen how to read using books in raised print and how to write with a lettering system called 'square hand.'

(Georgina Kleege) She latched onto writing at a very early point.

In Anne Sullivan's account of teaching her, particularly in the first months of their being together, she tells a story about Keller, who was fingerspelling to herself and then pretending that she was writing a letter.

And then she took the letter to her mother and she said, 'Take it to the post office and mail it.'

It was like she grasped this idea that she could write and send her words out into the world, and get a response back from people that she'd never met.

And that was a very powerful idea for her as a child.

(narrator voiceover) Back at Perkins, Michael Anagnos was eager to spread the word about the progress Annie was making with her new student.

(Mary Klages) With Helen Keller, he sees an opportunity to say, 'Look at what this woman, who is a graduate of Perkins, has been able to do with this unfortunate DeafBlind girl in making her a human being.'

♪♪♪ (narrator voiceover) 'Her progress was not a gradual advancement but sort of a triumphal march,' Anagnos wrote in one dispatch sent to Perkins alumni and benefactors.

But Annie Sullivan resisted this narrative and the way it would be used.

(as Annie Sullivan) I appreciate the kind things Mr. Anagnos has said about Helen and me, but his extravagant way of saying them rubs me the wrong way.

The truth is not wonderful enough to suit the newspapers, so they enlarge upon it and invent ridiculous embellishments.

♪♪♪ (narrator voiceover) When she is 8, Helen enrolls at the Perkins School.

(as Helen Keller) In the school, I was in my own country.

What joy.

(narrator voiceover) Helen and Annie also worked on another way for Helen to communicate using lipreading and vibrations.

(Annie Sullivan) And I let her see by putting her hand on my face how we talk with our mouths.

She felt the vibrations of the spoken word.

Instantly she spelled, 'I want to talk with my mouth.'

That seemed impossible.

But after experimenting for a time, we found that placing her hand in this position -- the thumb resting on the throat right at the larynx, the first finger on the lips, the second on the nose -- we found that she could feel the vibrations of spoken words.

(narrator voiceover) While this wasn't always accurate, it allowed Helen a direct connection with people, and she used it often in public.

From the time she was a young girl, Helen was eager to speak.

(as Helen Keller) I had known for a long time that people around me used a method of communication different from mine.

One who is entirely dependent on the manual alphabet has always a sense of restraint, of narrowness.

My thoughts would often rise up and beat like birds against the wind, and I persisted in using my lips and voice.

♪♪♪ (narrator voiceover) She received help from a friend, Alexander Graham Bell, now best known as the creator of the telephone, then a leader in Deaf education.

(Douglas Baynton) That's what he saw as his mission in life -- in particular, teaching of speech and oral communication.

He was a public advocate for the suppression of sign language in the schools, and for the teaching of oral skills in schools.

(Rebecca Alexander) Oralism in general, I think, has a very oppressive quality to it, because what oralism is predicated on is the idea that the only way to communicate effectively is being able to speak.

(Douglas Baynton) Speech teaching was a central part of Bell's life, and he married a Deaf woman, Mabel Bell, who was also a public advocate for the oral method.

(narrator voiceover) When Bell learned Helen was speaking, he went to Perkins, and spelled questions into her hands.

♪♪♪ (as A. G. Bell) Do you know what a cloud is?

(as Helen Keller) Rain.

(as A.G. Bell) What is wind?

(as Helen Keller) It is wild air.

(as A.G. Bell) What is thought?

(as Helen Keller) When we make a mistake, we say, 'I thought it was right.'

(as A.G. Bell) Where is your thought?

(as Helen Keller) Mind.

My head is full of mind.

(typewriter clicking) ♪♪♪ (narrator voiceover) On a visit home to Alabama when she's 11, Helen writes a story and sends it to Anagnos as a birthday present.

(as Helen Keller) 'King Frost, like all other kings, has great treasures of gold and silver.

But as he is a generous old monarch, he endeavors to make a right use of his riches.'

(Mary Klages) He says this is proof of what an original intellect she has.

There had been some accusations by critics, both for Laura Bridgman and for Helen Keller, that they weren't really learning anything, that they were just being parrots, they were just learning to imitate, that they had been trained to give answers.

An original story from Helen Keller proved, for Anagnos, that she was original, that she had the capacity for independent thought.

(narrator voiceover) Anagnos publishes the story.

A Deaf community newspaper prints it, and soon a reader notices a resemblance to one by Margaret Canby.

When the editors print them side by side, the similarities are obvious.

♪♪♪ (Mary Klages) It's not just an ordinary 11-year-old girl making the mistake of copying something that she'd read somewhere else.

This is Helen Keller.

This is the representative of what it means to be human, to have original thought, to have a soul, to have language -- everything that distinguishes animals from human beings.

(narrator voiceover) The Perkins library didn't have the story.

It did not exist in raised print, and Helen's parents had never heard of it.

Anagnos needed answers.

Was Helen a fraud?

Had Annie falsely represented the child?

He called for an investigation.

Eight Perkins educators and board members, four sighted and four Blind, were directed to find out what had happened.

(as Helen Keller) Miss Sullivan was asked to leave.

Then I was questioned, with what seemed to me a determination to force me to acknowledge that I remembered having 'The Frost Fairies' read to me.

I felt in every question the doubt and suspicion that was in their minds.

When at last I was allowed to leave the room, I was dazed and did not notice my teacher's caresses.

That night I wept as I hope few children have wept.

I felt so cold I imagined I should die before morning, and the thought comforted me.

♪♪♪ (Mary Klages) The verdict of the sighted and Blind teachers was 'not proven.'

Anagnos suspected for the rest of his life that Annie had read Helen the story and was trying to cover it up.

(as Helen Keller) I am sure I never heard it.

It made us feel so bad to think that people thought we had been untrue and wicked.

My heart is full of tears, for I love the beautiful truth with all my heart and mind.

(narrator voiceover) Michael Anagnos would publicly claim to hold Annie and Helen in high esteem.

But privately, he called Helen 'a living lie.'

And Helen was deeply scarred by the experience.

♪♪♪ (as Helen Keller) For a long time, when I wrote a letter, even to my mother, I was seized with a sudden feeling of terror, and I would spell the sentences over and over to make sure that I had not read them in a book.

(narrator voiceover) Helen never returned to Perkins.

In an effort to rebound from the plagiarism scandal, Annie urged Helen to write about her own experiences.

An essay written when she was 12 caught the attention of the novelist Mark Twain, who would become a friend.

(as Mark Twain) I will ask the reader to notice the easy flow and the graceful phrasing of this girl's narrative, and remember not that she is Blind Deaf, but that she was only 12 when she wrote the paper which I am quoting from.

Girls of 12 and with all their faculties intact and with 11 years' training in speech are not as a rule able to express themselves in this capable fashion.

And when this child is eloquent, how true the ring of it is, and how far above her years.

(narrator voiceover) Keller insisted on continuing her education.

(as Helen Keller) I did not want people to tell me what I should do or not do just because I happened to be different from others.

I was 16 years old, and I had decided to go to college.

It was a relief for Teacher after the many disturbed days she'd had spent brooding on my future, that I had formed the decision myself.

(Mary Klages) She was asked whether she wanted to go to Wellesley or to Vassar, to one of the existing women's colleges.

And she said, 'No, I want to go to Harvard.'

And Annie investigated this and said, 'Okay, well, it has to be Radcliffe,' which was then the Harvard extension for women.

(narrator voiceover) Annie and Helen needed help to pay for school.

A group of wealthy women created a scholarship fund and asked Twain to lead the appeal.

♪♪♪ (as Mark Twain) She underwent the Harvard examination for admissions to Radcliffe College.

She passed without a single condition.

She was allowed the same amount of time that is granted to other applicants, and this was shortened in her case by the fact that the question papers had to be read to her.

It won't do for America to allow this marvelous child to retire from her studies because of poverty.

If she can go on with them, she will make a fame that will endure in history for centuries.

Along her special lines, she is the most extraordinary product of all the ages.

(Kim Nielsen) When Helen entered college, there was a huge debate going on as to whether or not women should go to college.

There was a lot of concern that it would render them sterile, that they would be unable to handle a college education physically.

And with Helen Keller being deaf and blind, that was even more of a controversy.

Would she be able to handle it?

(narrator voiceover) Like all colleges then, Radcliffe was not accessible to all.

The lectures had to be interpreted.

No braille textbooks were easily available.

Helen relied on friends to help convert her books to braille.

Radcliffe dean Agnes Irwin personally paid for two exam proctors -- one to monitor Helen and the other to watch Helen's proctor.

(Peter Hall) It's almost as if they were afraid that people were going to accuse the university of engaging in a publicity stunt by graduating this -- this Helen Keller with her astounding disabilities and her astounding abilities, but that somehow, they weren't playing it on the level.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ (as Helen Keller) In the classroom, I was, of course, practically alone.

The professor was as remote as if he were speaking through a telephone.

The words rushed through my hand like hounds in pursuit of a hare, which they often miss.

But in this respect, I do not think I was much worse off than the girls who took notes.

(narrator voiceover) As difficult as it was to be a student there, Radcliffe is where Helen became a professional writer.

The editor of made a big offer to turn her autobiographical essays into magazine articles.

♪♪♪ (as Helen Keller) Without a very clear idea of what I was doing, I signed an agreement.

At the moment, I thought of nothing but the $3,000.

In my imagination, the story was already written.

(narrator voiceover) Soon Helen was falling behind.

(as Helen Keller) I was in deep water and frightened out of my wits.

A friend told me about Mr. Macy, an English instructor at Harvard.

He was eager, intelligent, gentle.

He understood my difficulties and set about relieving them.

(Kim Nielsen) The two of them hired him to come in and help them manage all of the papers and to edit 'The Story of My Life.'

(narrator voiceover) Macy negotiated a contract to turn Helen's articles into a book.

He added an introduction and Annie's letters about Helen.

This became the first of Keller's many books -- 'The Story of My Life.'

(Georgina Kleege) Her style was kind of a throwback to an earlier period.

Her style was kind of flowery and ornate.

She loved metaphors and imagery.

(narrator voiceover) In June 1904, Helen Keller graduated from Radcliffe College with honors.

She could read and write in Latin, French, and German, and was a published author.

(Kim Nielsen) After Helen graduated from college, she, of course, was thrilled by the success of 'Story of My Life,' and she wanted and planned to make her living as a writer.

The philanthropic support that they had was diminishing after she had graduated from college.

She had some limited success, but nothing she did reached the material success of 'The Story of My Life.'

She had a very hard time selling things.

(narrator voiceover) Helen started on another memoir -- 'The World I Live In.'

(Georgina Kleege) She talks about touch.

She talks about her sense of smell, and then she talks about what she calls her system of analogies.

(as Helen Keller) My hand is to me what your hearing and sight are to you.

My world is built of touch -- the delicate tremble of a butterfly's wings in my hand.

The clear, firm outline of a face and limb... and a thousand resultant combinations, which take shape in my mind, constitute my world.

(Georgina Kleege) She says, 'I have this sensory experience, and I can make analogies to sight and sound.'

It was not a popular book, because it didn't tell that wonderful, heroic, inspirational story.

(narrator voiceover) In their three-and-a-half years working closely together, John and Annie had fallen in love, and they married in the spring of 1905.

Macy moved into their house outside of Boston, and the three of them cultivated friends who were journalists, poets, teachers, and labor activists.

(Kim Nielsen) She became increasingly interested in politics.

And with John Macy, this was her entry into that world.

She wanted to know why some people were poor and some people were not.

She thought that was incredibly unjust, and she began to look at why that was the case.

(as Helen Keller) How did I become a socialist?

By reading.

It's no easy thing to absorb through one's fingers a book of 50,000 words on economics, but it is a pleasure I shall enjoy repeatedly until I have made myself familiar with all the classic socialist authors.

(Peter Hall) Socialism was an enormously appealing movement in the early decades of the 20th century.

It flourished in circles of educated people, especially educated young people.

♪♪♪ (as Helen Keller) It can't be unreasonable to ask of a society a fair chance for all.

It can't be unreasonable to demand the protection of women and children and an honest wage for all.

When shall we learn that we are all related one to the other, that we are all members of one body?

♪♪♪ (narrator voiceover) Helen would go on to write articles for a New York City socialist newspaper.

Its women's pages regularly discussed birth control, wages for women workers, and childcare.

When Keller began working on disability issues, job opportunities for Blind people were extremely limited.

(Brian Miller) Broom making, chair caning, some basic industrial arts and crafts.

Women were involved in mattress repair and sewing, and would develop lace.

They would do embroideries.

Yeah. They would make pillows.

A lot of not particularly advanced industrial enterprises.

(as Helen Keller) It's terrible to be Blind and to be uneducated; but it's worse for the Blind who have finished their education to be idle.

(narrator voiceover) Helen teamed up with a friend, Charlie Campbell.

(Sassy Outwater-Wright) When Helen Keller and Charles Campbell created the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, they were angry, but they needed to get people on their side.

They needed to advance the civil rights of Blind people, and they had to figure out a diplomatic way to do that while at the same time forcefully possessing ownership of their own experience.

(gavel banging) (as Helen Keller) I appeared before the Massachusetts legislature to urge the necessity of employment for the Blind and to ask for a state commission, to which I was appointed.

Although I didn't know it at the time, the curtain rose on my life's work.

♪♪♪ (narrator voiceover) Among the commission's earliest achievements was helping to reduce blindness in babies.

One of the big causes was gonorrhea, unknowingly passed on from mother to child.

(Janet Golden) Gonorrhea is affecting all of these babies.

They're being exposed.

They're gonna have sore eyes.

Many of them will go blind.

It becomes a matter of, 'Let's not keep this something shameful and hidden.

Let's find it and treat it.'

(Mary Klages) Because she was both female and Blind, it was safe for Helen to talk about things that other women would not be able to, like venereal disease.

No one would think that it's because she knew that firsthand.

(narrator voiceover) took on this taboo subject and invited Helen and other women to write about it.

(Laura Lovett) is targeted at the home.

It goes into everyone's household.

And this is a culture where women aren't allowed to talk about sex.

Where no one is allowed to talk about sex.

Where, in fact, women are not supposed to speak in public.

(as Helen Keller) The facts are not agreeable reading.

Often they are revolting.

It may be objected that women cannot be trusted with such a painful revelation.

They must be.

I cannot help it.

The time has come for plain speaking.

(narrator voiceover) A few drops of silver nitrate would end up being the prevention.

(as Helen Keller) I think it was the happiest moment of my life when I was told that the day nursery for Blind babies in Boston, once full, is now almost empty.

(narrator voiceover) But despite all she helped to accomplish and the work being done to improve Blind lives, the commission members were not equal.

While reports were often provided in braille for Helen and her Blind colleagues, there were no accommodations for Helen's deafness.

She had to provide the interpreters and was never able to access all of the available information.

♪♪♪ (as Helen Keller) At the meetings, the endless minutiae were impossible to grasp through hand spelling.

I felt incompetent to enter into discussions, only part of which any human being could give me.

My mind became confused, and suggestions I intended making usually failed to materialize.

I decided to resign.

♪♪♪ (narrator voiceover) By now, Keller is nearly 30.

Famous since childhood, she is sought out by journalists and photographers.

From the time she was a small girl, her protruding left eye was always carefully concealed.

Keller decided to change that.

(Sassy Outwater-Wright) She needed to pass for public inspection.

She needed to be someone that looked normal and comfortable to the media-consuming public.

(Mary Klages) So she has her eyes replaced with glass eyes, which make her look like her eyes are always open, bright, shining, and seeing.

(Sassy Outwater-Wright) Removing the eye is a difficult procedure to go through.

I've been through it twice, and, uh, for her to go through that at 30 years of age would have, at that time, been a very difficult experience, and all of this was private.

(narrator voiceover) Keller continued to work on her speech and learned new breathing techniques often used by singers.

♪♪♪ (Rebecca Alexander) The level of pain and blood, sweat, and tears of effort, of time and energy that people who are Deaf have gone through in order to be able to speak in some form of intelligible way is never really addressed.

(as Helen Keller) Since my 10th year, I have labored unceasingly to speak so that others can understand me.

I have not succeeded completely in realizing the desire of my childhood to 'talk like other people.'

Yet I have only partially conquered the hostile silence.

It is not a pleasant voice.

(Helen Keller) It is not blindness or deafness that brings me my darkest hours.

(Annie Sullivan) 'It is not blindness or deafness that bring me my darkest hours.'

It is the acute disappointment in not being able to speak normally.

'It is the acute disappointment in not being able to speak normally.'

Longingly I feel how much more good I may have done if I had only acquired normal speech.

'Longingly I feel how much more good I could have done if I had acquired normal speech.'

But out of this sorrowful experience, I understand more clearly... 'But out of this sorrowful experience, I understand more clearly...' ...all human striving... '...all human striving...' ...thwarted ambitions... '...thwarted ambitions...' ...and infinite capacity of hope.

'...and infinite capacity of hope.'

♪♪♪ (narrator voiceover) Throughout the next decades, Keller would lend her name to big causes.

She joined the labor union Industrial Workers of the World and was in the vanguard of the women's movement.

(Georgina Kleege) She was a suffragist.

She supported women's right to vote.

She said somewhere that she saw being female as more of a disability than being DeafBlind, because women didn't have the vote.

(Rebecca Alexander) There's a defiance in Helen Keller that I have always related to that resonates so loudly with me.

The defiance is that she will not be defined.

♪♪♪ (as Helen Keller) This inferiority of woman is man-made.

(Kim Nielsen) She knew she was a prominent figure, and that the media would follow her wherever she went.

So she knew that if she went to support striking workers, those striking workers would receive media attention.

(narrator voiceover) Newspaper editors, who had previously showered her with praise, were quick to criticize her positions.

'Helen Keller preaching on the merits of socialism.'

'Helen Keller sneering at the Constitution.'

'Helen Keller on these aspects is pitiful,' said one editorial.

(Kim Nielsen) Annie and John were frequently blamed for brainwashing Helen, and for giving her political views.

(as Helen Keller) There's a chance for a satirical comment on the phrase 'the exploitation of poor Helen Keller.'

I don't like the hypocritical sympathy of such a paper.

But I'm glad if it knows what the word 'exploitation' means.

(Georgina Kleege) On the one hand, people would say, 'Oh, poor Helen Keller.

She's being manipulated by these people around her.

They're putting words in her mouth.

You know, she doesn't know what she's saying.

It's just terrible.'

And then the other criticism was, 'Well, if someone who's so defective like this DeafBlind person can take these positions, that just proves how wrong-minded they are.'

So in either case, she's dismissed.

She's diminished.

Her political views are not taken seriously.

(narrator voiceover) Keller's beliefs, her politics, and advocacy would, at times, have to be tempered by the need to earn a living.

(Kim Nielsen) Helen and Annie always struggled with money.

They always felt that they needed money to support their household.

(narrator voiceover) A big source of income was speaking engagements.

The topics were suffrage, Blindness, Helen's education, and why she became a socialist.

♪♪♪ (applause) (as Helen Keller) We spoke in halls or big, noisy tents full of country folk.

(narrator voiceover) Together they crisscrossed the country.

All the while, America was building up its weaponry and getting ready to enter World War I.

Keller was fervently opposed.

(as Helen Keller) I used to wake suddenly from a frightful dream of sweat and blood and multitudes shot, killed, crazed, and go to sleep only to dream of it again.

My teacher and I were both worn out.

But I determined to do and say my utmost against militarism.

(narrator voiceover) She gave anti-war speeches, and in this one at Carnegie Hall, took on her critics.

(as Helen Keller) I know what I'm talking about.

My sources of information are as good and reliable as anybody else's.

I have papers and magazines from England, France, Germany, and Austria that I can read myself.

No, I will not disparage the editors.

They are an overworked, misunderstood class.

Let them remember, though, that if I cannot see the fire at the end of their cigarettes, neither can they thread a needle in the dark.

(narrator voiceover) Keller courted even more controversy in her home state of Alabama when she sent a large donation with a letter of support to the NAACP.

(as Helen Keller) I am indeed wholeheartedly with you.

This great republic of ours is a mockery when citizens in any section are denied the rights the Constitution guarantees them... when they are openly evicted, terrorized, and lynched by prejudiced mobs and their persecutors and murderers are allowed to walk abroad unpunished.'

(narrator voiceover) Again, editorial writers condemned her and essentially told her not to come home again.

'Her visit to Selma will not be as welcome as it might have been, advocating and endorsing as she does such unspeakable things as this Negro magazine stands for.

If she is ashamed of her southland, why call their dollars?'

♪♪♪ Helen's Alabama family asked her to back down.

Many years later, NAACP founder W.E.B. Du Bois applauded her conviction.

(as W.E.B. Du Bois) Keller was in her own state, Alabama, being feted and made much of by her fellow citizens.

And yet, courageously and frankly, she spoke out on the inequity and foolishness of the color line.

It cost her something to speak.

♪♪♪ (Susan Schweik) So, the hardest thing to grapple with about Keller's political life for me is what at least appears to be her embrace of eugenics.

(narrator voiceover) In 1915, a doctor refused to perform surgery on a disabled baby and left the child to die.

Helen was drawn into the public debate as an example of the value of life.

But when asked about it, Keller defends the doctor and supports his decision.

(as Helen Keller) It is the possibilities of happiness, intelligence, and power that give life its sanctity, and they are absent in the case of a poor, misshapen, paralyzed, unthinking creature.

♪♪♪ (Susan Schweik) She does it, though, with some complications that are important to think about.

She argues for several things.

She argues for a check on the system, for a kind of ethics board of, uh, doctors and thinkers to mull over what is possible for this child and what kind of suffering the child is in.

So she has a nuanced position in that way.

She also -- and this is really interesting -- makes a call for people who have enough wealth to support a child in that condition to come forward and adopt babies who are coming under this kind of threat.

She is trying to think through this range of issues.

(narrator voiceover) Her thinking evolved.

Decades later, during another medical ethics debate, Keller sent a telegram to the parents of an infant girl with eye tumors.

(as Helen Keller) Blindness is not the greatest evil.

It is only a physical handicap.

That is life.

The annals of progress show undeniably that much of humanity's finest work has been wrought by persons with a severe handicap that she may be spared to help open the eyes of ignorance.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ (applause) ♪♪♪ (narrator voiceover) During all the years Helen and Annie spent on the road, there were no accommodations for disabled travelers.

(as Helen Keller) I've never been able to accustom myself to hotel life.

I cannot readily orientate myself in a strange locality.

I am conscious of the same kind of remoteness one senses out at sea, far from all signs of land.

(Brian Miller) We think of a Blind person and how they get around, you think of a white cane, you think of a dog.

And those tools were not part of the landscape for Blind people.

They were not available to Blind people until well into the 20th century.

(narrator voiceover) Annie's eyesight was deteriorating.

She became ill and fell.

(as Helen Keller) There was no one to help us in that dismal hotel, not even an intelligent maid.

I understood then why our friends insisted we should have a competent woman with us.

♪♪♪ (narrator voiceover) They found Polly Thomson, a young woman from Scotland described as someone who 'could balance a bank book, map out a cross-country schedule and keep to it.'

(Kim Nielsen) Polly Thomson fit right in and became a presence who was there for decades.

♪♪♪ (narrator voiceover) While they were on the road, John Macy left.

His marriage to Annie had been unraveling for some time.

(Kim Nielsen) I think the breakup happened for so many reasons.

It happened for money reasons.

It happened for alcohol reasons.

It happened for Annie's fearfulness.

They didn't know how to live with Helen, as well.

(narrator voiceover) A distraught Annie leaned on Helen.

(as Helen Keller) She kept demanding my love in a way that was heartbreaking.

For days, she would shut herself up almost stunned, trying to think of a plan that would bring John back or weeping as only women who are no longer cherished weep.

♪♪♪ (narrator voiceover) But, soon, Hollywood came calling, giving Helen and Annie a great diversion.

Toward the end of World War I, producers pitched a film that could raise awareness of disabled soldiers.

(as Helen Keller) I thought that through the film we might show how the distracted, war-tortured world we were then living in could be saved from strife and social injustice.

That's why the picture was called 'Deliverance.'

(Georgina Kleege) It was a full-on, big Hollywood production, you know.

It concludes with this scene of her on a white horse and all these people following behind her, you know, which is somehow representing of that she's leading the masses into the glorious future.

(as Helen Keller) I was supposed to be a Joan of Arc fighting for the freedom of the workers of the world!

In the California sun, I grew hotter, redder, and more embarrassed every second.

The trumpet tasted nasty!

My quaint fancy of leading the people of the world to victory has never been so ardent since.

♪♪♪ (narrator voiceover) The film's plot, which Helen later called ludicrous, included a bizarre romance for her -- a fantasy boyfriend pulled from the pages of ancient Greek literature.

(Georgina Kleege) It's wild.

It's a wild movie.

In some ways, it's kind of a straight-up biography, with her playing herself, which is always an interesting case, but it has these extraordinary dream sequences where she falls asleep reading 'The Odyssey.'

(Mary Klages) She does imagine being in love with Ulysses, through reading Homer.

So that it's not 'Helen Keller falls in love with a man and has sex,' but, rather, (airily) 'Helen Keller imagines herself as a literary creation.'

♪♪♪ (narrator voiceover) But, in real life, Helen had already fallen in love with Peter Fagan, a socialist and an old friend of John Macy's.

(as Helen Keller) I was sitting alone in my study.

The young man came in and sat beside me.

For a long time, he held my hand in silence, then he began talking to me tenderly.

I was surprised he cared so much about me.

(narrator voiceover) The romance began when Annie became sick and went away with Polly to recover.

Helen stayed behind with Fagan.

He had been working with them for months, helping with correspondence and Helen's writing.

(Kim Nielsen) Peter Fagan could fingerspell, he knew the manual alphabet, and they could communicate directly.

They required no intermediary.

(as Helen Keller) He said if I would marry him, he would always be near to help me in the difficulties of life.

(Kim Nielsen) She wanted a life with her own household, possibly with children, with a man to love.

She said yes.

The two of them went off, got a marriage license, they did not tell anyone.

News of the marriage license hit the media. Boom!

Everyone wanted attention.

Everyone wanted to know whether this was true.

(narrator voiceover) Annie Sullivan was opposed to a marriage, as were Helen's mother and siblings, perhaps believing married life and childbearing should not be possible for a DeafBlind woman.

(Georgina Kleege) Apparently.

I mean, you know, it's still an issue for disabled people today.

There's an idea that, 'Oh, you wouldn't want to have sex with a disabled person.

You wouldn't want to reproduce with a disabled person.'

You know.

I don't understand it, but it's a prevalent view.

(Rebecca Alexander) How incredibly sad and unfortunate that, despite all of the education and access these people provided her with, Annie Sullivan and her family, that they were not able to understand just how crucial and important that human connection was for her, not just in terms of these meaningful friendships and familial relationships, but in terms of romantic connection and relationships.

(narrator voiceover) Unable to resist Annie and her family, Helen reluctantly ended the relationship.

She shrugged off the episode with self-deprecating humor.

(as Helen Keller) I seem to have acted exactly opposite to my nature.

It can only be explained in the old way that love makes us blind.

♪♪♪ (narrator voiceover) But it was far more serious and meaningful to her than that public quip.

(as Helen Keller) The brief love will remain in my life, a little island of joy surrounded by dark waters.

I am glad that I have had the experience of being loved and desired.

♪♪♪ (narrator voiceover) In later years, responding to a fan who had never met her and sent a marriage proposal, Helen wrote about coming to terms with what she wanted, but could never have.

(Rebecca Alexander) Here is a woman who couldn't hear or see.

You can imagine her ability to feel connected to her body.

I think that is one of the most incredible parts of not being able to hear and see, right?

The other parts of your body, of your senses, are heightened.

(as Helen Keller) Since my youth, I have desired the love of a man.

Why was I tantalized with bodily capabilities I could not fulfill?

I no longer cry for the spoiled treasures of womanhood.

I face consciously the strong sex urge of my nature and turn that life energy into channels of satisfying sympathy and work.

♪♪♪ (narrator voiceover) When 'Deliverance' opened, Helen was not there.

She refused to cross Actors' Equity picket lines.

The silent film did not bring attention to disabled veterans, nor did it make much money.

Annie and Helen were, again, scrambling for resources.

(as Helen Keller) We're the kind of people who come out of an enterprise poorer than they went into it.

(narrator voiceover) B.F. Keith vaudeville made them a big offer -- $2,000 a week.

They went on between animal acts and acrobats.

(cheers and applause) (as Helen Keller) It had always been said that we went into public life only to attract attention and I had letters from friends in Europe about 'the deplorable theatrical exhibition' into which I had allowed myself to be dragged.

Now the truth is, I went of my own free will and persuaded my teacher to go with me.

Vaudeville offered us better pay than either literary work or lecturing!

♪♪♪ (narrator voiceover) Helen and Annie did two 20-minute performances a day.

They also took questions.

(laughter) (as Annie Sullivan) All the world knows and loves Helen Keller, the girl with an unconquerable spirit!

Can you tell when the audience applauds?

(as Helen Keller) Oh, yes.

I hear it with my feet.

(as Annie Sullivan) What is her opinion of President Harding?

(as Helen Keller) I have a fellow feeling for him.

He seems to be as blind as I am.

(as Annie Sullivan) The three greatest men of our time?

(as Helen Keller) Lenin, Edison, and Chaplin.

Some of the questions were very funny.

'Can you tell the time of day without a watch?

Do you think that business is looking up?

Do you believe in ghosts?

Do you think it's a blessing to be poor?'

There were hundreds of them.

♪♪♪ I liked it.

I liked to feel the warm tide of human life pulsing round and round me.

To weep at its sorrows, be annoyed by its foibles, laugh at its absurdities.

(laughter) (applause) (narrator voiceover) But Annie's health was failing.

Their contract was not renewed.

It was time to get off the road, return to their new home in New York, time for Polly to take on a bigger role, and time to start new work.

The American Foundation for the Blind wanted Helen's help.

(Brian Miller) So, the AFB would become, in pretty short order, the preeminent organization speaking on Blindness issues in the country, from the 1920s, you know, well into the 1950s and beyond, you know.

For many, many decades, it was, certainly, by far, the best funded and best known.

And in large part, of course, that was due to the efforts of Helen Keller, who would become the best known spokesperson for the AFB.

♪♪♪ (narrator voiceover) Soon, they were back on the road.

(as Helen Keller) For three years we covered the country from coast to coast.

We addressed 250,000 people at 249 meetings in 123 cities, attending innumerable luncheons and receptions and making endless calls.

(narrator voiceover) The AFB was skittish about Helen's politics.

She was told not to speak about her socialism or its issues.

(Georgina Kleege) She was a figurehead.

People knew she was a celebrity.

I think, with the AFB, which was a somewhat, you know, you know, somewhat more conservative organization, they wanted to keep her focused on one issue and one issue only.

'It's about Blindness.

Give money to the Blind people.'

(narrator voiceover) So, with the help of AFB speechwriters, Keller tailored an emotional pitch for community-minded groups, like this one she gave to the Lions Club Convention.

(as Helen Keller) Try to imagine how you would feel if you were suddenly stricken blind.

Picture yourself stumbling and groping at noonday, your work, your independence, gone.

(Georgina Kleege) Some of them are hard to read because it's all about, 'the poor Blind people living in darkness and ignorance, you know, but with your kind support, they will have a glimmer of hope,' and so on.

(narrator voiceover) Early in the 1930s, Keller, on behalf of the AFB, persuaded President Herbert Hoover to host an international assembly of Blind leaders at the White House.

The event coincided with an agreement to standardize braille and use it in American Blind schools.

(Brian Miller) It's a huge accomplishment.

For well over a century, you had multiple competing versions of braille and, you know, you couldn't communicate beyond, sometimes, you know, your roommate at your residential school or, you know, the guy next door, you know, because everybody read a different version of braille.

It really brought the Blind community together, in a way it hadn't been.

(narrator voiceover) In her more than 40 years with the AFB, Keller campaigned for sight-saving classes in public schools, resources for job training, the establishment of commissions for the Blind in nearly 20 states, and access to braille and audio for the Blind.

(male reporter) The Works Progress Administration has established a project for making talking-book machines for the Blind.

(narrator voiceover) But, in 1935, when the AFB pioneered the talking-book, Keller initially balked at lending her support.

Revolutionary as it was, the talking-book would be of no use to Deaf and DeafBlind people.

(as Helen Keller) I thought the Blind could do without talking-books and radios, at a time when millions of people are out of work and in the bread lines.

But I would appear before legislators and ask them for appropriations for talking-books.

This wouldn't be soliciting funds directly from the public.

(male reporter) The person who suggested this project and is responsible for it is Miss Helen Keller.

(narrator voiceover) Helen's involvement was greatly exaggerated.

She drove a hard bargain, finally agreeing to promote talking-books after the AFB promised her more would be done for DeafBlind people.

Once assured, she took the cause straight to the White House.

(as Helen Keller) Dear Mrs. Roosevelt, your kindness to everybody encourages me to come to you with a request.

Would you give a tea at the White House to help me send the talking-book to every corner of dark-land?

I dare not hope of meeting the president, his days are so terribly crowded.

(narrator voiceover) 'Anything Helen Keller is for, I am for,' FDR once said.

They had the shared experience of pushing their disabilities out of the frame while living big public lives.

♪♪♪ Eleanor Roosevelt later wrote, 'My husband knew what it was to face a handicap and conquer it.

I thought how wonderfully both Miss Keller and my husband typified triumph over physical handicap.'

By 1936, Annie Sullivan was near death.

She was 70 years old.

(as Helen Keller) Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I ♪♪♪ (narrator voiceover) After nearly half a century, Helen was losing the most important relationship of her life.

Helen was by her beloved teacher's side for her final hours.

♪♪♪ (as Helen Keller) It was an October evening.

She was fully awake, sitting in an armchair with us around her.

She was laughing.

How tenderly she fondled my hand!

♪♪♪ Her dearness was without limit... ♪♪♪ ...and it was almost intolerable.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ (narrator voiceover) Annie Sullivan would be the first woman to have her ashes placed in the National Cathedral.

♪♪♪ Helen was consumed with grief.

She needed to mourn in private, so she went to Scotland with Polly.

♪♪♪ (as Helen Keller) Dear, brave Polly now reads to me with her fingers when I can pay any attention.

The anguish which makes me feel cut in two prevents me from writing another word about these life-wrecking changes.

♪♪♪ (Kim Nielsen) This was a time of tremendous healing for her.

It was also a time of tremendous grief.

But it was very important.

She wrote a book which chronicles the year after Annie's death.

It is, in some ways, the least polished of her books, but I find it to be the most truthful, the most heartfelt.

It's very painful to read, sometimes, because of the anguish that she's feeling over Annie's death, but it's also very beautiful and you, as a reader, get a very strong taste of their relationship.

♪♪♪ (as Helen Keller) I saw no other way to accomplish a task of extreme difficulty and delicacy -- reintegrating my life, so shaken and lacerated by Teacher's going.

It is as if all objects dear to my touch and paths familiar to my feet had vanished.

♪♪♪ (narrator voiceover) Keller, with Polly at her side, continued her work with the AFB.

As the Nazis rose to power, she stood her ground when her German publisher insisted her books be heavily censored.

Helen refused.

(as Helen Keller) I ask you please to drop all my writings from your list of publications.

(fire crackling, men shouting indistinctly) (narrator voiceover) Her books were among those publicly burned.

♪♪♪ (narrator voiceover) During World War II, Helen and Polly visited military hospitals across the country, talking to wounded soldiers.

(as Helen Keller) To try to brace the newly blinded and the newly deafened, my comrades along the roads of darkness and silence.

The variety of their hands is infinite -- hands hardened by manual labor, slender hands aquiver with thought; powerful, nervous hands; hands pitifully defaced by burns.

♪♪♪ (explosions) (narrator voiceover) After the atomic bombs were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, forcing Japan's surrender, Keller is invited to tour the country during the U.S. occupation.

Helen had visited Blind advocates there years before.

(indistinct conversations) (as Helen Keller) A more gracious compliment could not have been paid me than General MacArthur's granting this opportunity to be reunited with my Japanese Blind and Deaf fellows.

(children vocalizing) His interest will, I am sure, draw to our standard the good-will and the practical aid that restore and heal.

(archival voiceover) Nagasaki was still recovering from the atomic bomb when Helen Keller went there on pilgrimage.

♪♪♪ (Laura Lovett) I think, at some level, there's a kind of practical mission to her being sent in that moment of conciliation, right?

'You can learn to live with the horror of whatever casualty was caused by our dropping of this bomb, just as Keller does.'

(siren wailing) (as Helen Keller) No sooner had we arrived there than the bitter irony of it all gripped us overwhelmingly, and it cost us a supreme effort to speak.

♪♪♪ Jolting over what had once been paved streets, we visited the one grave -- all ashes -- where ninety thousand men, women, and children were instantly killed.

We stumbled over ground cluttered in every direction -- foundation-stones, timbers, bits of machinery and twisted girders.

Polly saw burns on the face of the welfare officer.

A shocking sight.

He let me touch his face, and the rest is silence.

♪♪♪ And it was to these people that I made the appeal.

Their affectionate welcome will remain in my soul, a holy memory -- and a reproach.

(Kim Nielsen) Keller's 1948 trip to Japan convinced the U.S. State Department, without a doubt, that she was one of the most effective ambassadors that they'd ever had and she was then used by the State Department to travel all over the world.

She went to Israel.

She went to South Africa.

She went throughout Central America and South America.

She went through the Northern European countries.

She traveled extensively throughout the Middle East.

And, wherever she went, people certainly understood her as an American, but they also understood her as more than that, that she transcended nationhood, that she represented what people had in common, despite their nationalistic differences.

(Helen Keller) I know every step on the road you are traveling... (Polly Thomson) (Scottish accent) 'I know every step of the road you are taking...' ...and I rejoice at your cheer and determination.

'...and I rejoice at your cheer and determination.'

The obstacles you meet are many.

'Because the obstacles you meet are many.'

And, when you go out to life's struggles and adventures... 'And, when you go out to life's struggles and adventures...' will raise a banner... ' will raise a banner...' ...for the Deaf who follow you.

'...for the Deaf who follow you.'

(as Hellen Keller) Blindness with a big 'B' has never interested me.

I've always looked on the Blind as part of the whole of society and my desire is to help them regain their human rights.

What I say of the Blind applies equally to all hindered groups -- the Deaf, the impoverished, the mentally disturbed.

(narrator voiceover) Over the next decade, the U.S. government would develop its goodwill ambassador program.

Keller visited more than three dozen countries addressing issues of importance to her -- education and employment for people with disabilities, poverty, and women's rights.

She often went to countries after controversial struggles over equality had taken place, such as apartheid in South Africa.

(woman #1) And to you, Miss Keller, we present this scroll for being the outstanding woman in social service work and who is an inspiration, not only to the handicapped, but to all of us, for your courage and indomitable will.

(narrator voiceover) Now living in Connecticut, Helen and Polly had a new group of friends, including the then-famous Broadway star Katharine Cornell and her partner, Nancy Hamilton.

Together, they made a documentary filled with staged scenes of daily life.

(Georgina Kleege) They sort of present her and Polly Thomson as these two sort of spinster ladies who were kind of doing good works, but they don't really explain what the good works are.

It wasn't really about her intellectual life.

I mean, they do have a scene, I think, of her typing a letter, or something, but it's kind of unclear what the content of what she's writing might be about.

(narrator voiceover) With Helen's permission, playwright William Gibson dramatized her childhood in a TV program, on the Broadway stage, and, finally, a feature film starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke -- all hugely popular.

♪♪♪ Helen was coming to the end of a full and accomplished life, but her legacy would be overshadowed.

She would live on as the girl at the water pump.

♪♪♪ (Susan Schweik) So, the end result, by the time the film version and the stage version of 'The Miracle Worker' do their work -- do their miracle work -- is they, in many ways, kill off Helen Keller, culturally, socially, and we get a child at the water pump.

We get Patty Duke.

So, in some ways, I find that the most bizarre thing.

(Georgina Kleege) It has overtones of an American story that we like to tell ourselves, about, 'If you just work hard enough, you can overcome anything,' which, of course, we know is a myth, but it's still very popular.

It has a kind of Christian overlay.

I mean, I think the whole business about the pump, about the water, that it's that word, you know, has a kind of inference of baptism, of being born again.

So I think, all of that combined, it just makes it a really, really compelling story, but I think we need to think about it.

(Brian Miller) It's not something that you really think about in a sophisticated way, apart from what the standard story is, and then, two, it's something that, if you are a person with a disability, as I was, always made you just a little uncomfortable.

Because either, 'A,' Helen Keller was something that was presented as a model or as, you know, as a super person with a disability, you know, and that you had to live up to; or, 'B,' you know, was somebody who, again, was the stuff of a lot of really terrible jokes.

And so, you know, those kind of associations are not something, you know, as a young kid, you know, you're comfortable with.

♪♪♪ (Mary Klages) I think it's very difficult for a 21st-century audience to connect with the image of Helen Keller that the 20th century produced.

And that's partly because she represents ideas about purity and self-sacrifice that are sentimental and that we don't have a culture of sentiment anymore, that sentiment is something we make fun of.

That more people are going to know Helen Keller from the jokes that are made about her than they are from the original images.

(Kim Nielsen) And the fact that we have, in essence, whitewashed her to that extent, we've made her boring, to a great extent, is not fair to Helen Keller and it paints a very limited -- very limited -- picture of people with disabilities today and what their lives can be like, and what their lives are like.

We need to, I think, recognize her as a fully complex, contradictory, interesting, quirky person of firm convictions, very important to her nation's history, but also, not perfect.

And that represents a far more realistic picture for people with disabilities today.

It represents a far more realistic picture of what we, as a country are and what we can do, as people.

(narrator voiceover) Polly died in 1960.

♪♪♪ A series of strokes began to sideline Helen and ultimately forced her retirement from public life.

♪♪♪ In April 1961, Keller gave what would be her last speech.

It was a visionary one, calling for more funds and special education for children with disabilities.

(as Helen Keller) There seems to be a growing conviction that the Federal government should education and funds to promote the schooling of children who are physically, mentally, or emotionally handicapped.

Think of it -- probably 75 percent of all such children are denied the right to any education!

♪♪♪ Of course we know how expensive special education is... ♪♪♪ ...but America should provide this advantage.

♪♪♪ (Peter Hall) She's a person who tried to bring about certain changes without the force of law behind them.

She was really sort of an advance scout.

♪♪♪ (narrator voiceover) Helen Keller died on June 1, 1968.

She took her place next to Annie and Polly at the National Cathedral.

♪♪♪ (as Helen Keller) I cannot understand why anyone should fear death.

Life here is more cruel than death.

I believe that when the eyes within my physical eyes shall open upon the world to come, I shall simply be consciously living in the country of my heart.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪


PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.