Political Activist and Author
Helen Keller’s life changed dramatically when, at the age of nineteen months, she contracted an illness that left her both blind and deaf. Through extraordinary willpower, and the dedication of her longtime teacher and companion, Anne Sullivan, she was able to learn ‘tactile fingerspelling’ and, later, braille. In 1904, Keller graduated from Radcliffe College, a sister-college of Harvard University, becoming the first deafblind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts. Over the course of her long life (she lived well into her eighties), she was a passionate activist, travelling often to speak on behalf of the blind, as well as on socialism, pacifism and women’s rights. A prolific author, she wrote a book of essays, Out of the Dark, detailing her views on socialism, as well as several books about her personal life, including her autobiography, The Story of My Life.
In 1952, Keller travelled to Paris to take part in centennial celebrations honouring Louis Braille. She was awarded a Medal of Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur and addressed an audience at the Sorbonne. She spoke in French, reaching the many Parisians who had come to hear her. ‘Look at the strong solidarity that is already taking hold among blind people all over the world,’ she said. ‘This is truly a symbol of all the years in which blind people have broken through the darkness with the inner light of human knowledge.’ In 1964, a few years before her death, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honour.
The Life and Legacy of Louis Braille 1952
Mister President, Professors, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am touched by the honor you have given me. I cannot help thinking that this honor is not due to any accomplishment of mine, but is rather for the encouragement of the blind and the deaf whom I represent.
On behalf of the blind people of the world, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for having generously recognized the pride and efforts of all those who refuse to succumb to their limitations. In our way, we, the blind, are as indebted to Louis Braille as mankind is to Gutenberg. It is true that the dot system is very different from ordinary print, but these raised letters are, under our fingers, precious seeds from which has grown our intellectual harvest. Without the braille dot system, how incomplete and chaotic our education would be! The dismal doors of frustration would shut us out from the untold treasures of literature, philosophy and science. But, like a magic wand, the six dots of Louis Braille have resulted in schools where embossed books, like vessels, can transport us to ports of education, libraries and all the means of expression that assure our independence.
Look at the strong solidarity that is already taking hold among blind people all over the world, and how, thanks to international braille, they have begun to weave words of kinship among themselves and with humanity. This is truly a symbol of all the years in which blind people have broken through the darkness with the inner light of human knowledge. Blind people of the world simply ask that where their abilities have been successfully put to the test, they are given the chance to participate fully in the activities of their sighted counterparts.