Hellen Keller – Empathy

Hellen Keller – Empathy


The Native Americans used to say that empathy was the ability to walk a mile in another person’s moccasins. We would now say that empathy is the ability to put yourself in another person’s situation and try to understand what he or she might be feeling. This can be done by listening intently to someone’s story or by simply imagining the realities of his or her situation. To fully appreciate the life of Helen Keller, you should do both—listen intently and imagine. Imagine what it must be like to go through life without the ability to hear or see anything at all. Close your eyes and plug your ears and imagine what it would be like to try to communicate, to take care of yourself, or to be hopeful about the future. Think of all the sights and sounds that you take for granted as you go through your busy life. As you try to empathize with Helen Keller, be sure not to confuse empathy with sympathy. Sympathy is about feeling sorry for or pitying someone. Empathy is about understanding. Helen Keller would not want your sympathy. She lived a full life, experiencing friendship, love, and loss like anyone else. Unlike most other people, however, she traveled to more than 35 countries during her lifetime, meeting kings, queens, and presidents. And perhaps most important, she used her talents to help others who were less fortunate. She would not want your pity, but she would ask for your understanding.

Helen was born in 1880 in the small town of Tuscumbia, Alabama. She had two loving parents, Arthur and Kate; two older half-brothers, James and William; and eventually a younger sister, Mildred. Helen’s father was the editor of the local newspaper and a fairly wealthy man. Helen was a healthy baby and enjoyed a normal childhood for the first 18 months of her life. Like most children, she began walking by her first birthday and could say a few words. One of the words she knew was “water,” but it came out sounding like “wah-wah.” While visiting her father’s prized garden, she could see the colorful berries and flowers, and she could hear the chirping of birds nearby.

When Helen was 18 months old, she caught a fever. It was an unusually high fever that kept her awake, sweating profusely for days. Without the use of antibiotics, which did not exist at the time, the family’s doctor was unable to help Helen and predicted that she would not live. However, her fever finally subsided, and the family was relieved to see her recover. However, they soon began to notice differences in Helen’s behavior. She had always had a good appetite and typically responded quickly to the dinner bell, regardless of what she was engaged in doing at the time. After the illness subsided, however, Helen did not seem to notice the bell anymore. Her mother began to wonder about Helen’s hearing. As a test, she shook a rattle by Helen’s ear. No response. No matter how furiously she shook the rattle, Helen did not respond. Sadly, that was not the only change in Helen’s behavior. When the sunlight shone in her eyes, she no longer squinted. Not wanting to believe the worst, her mother began waving her hands and bright lights in front of Helen’s face. She did not even blink. The fever had not taken Helen’s life, but it had stolen her sight and hearing.

Because the fever occurred before Helen had really learned to talk, she was almost totally devoid of the use of language. She had no way to associate a specific word with a specific object. To her, a pillow was not a pillow. A fork was not a fork. She did not have names for the objects she encountered every day. Without the ability to speak, hear, or see, Helen lived in a world of darkness, something she would later refer to as her “dark and silent world.” Over the next few years, Helen developed a few crude gestures to communicate her basic needs. For example, if she wanted her mother, she would stroke the side of her cheek; to ask for a slice of bread, she would mimic a cutting motion. She knew to nod her head up and down for “yes” and shake it left to right for “no.” Predictably, Helen became increasingly frustrated when people did not understand her. This led to frequent temper tantrums. Helen later described these tantrums in her autobiography. “I felt as if invisible hands were holding me, and I made frantic efforts to free myself…the spirit of resistance was strong in me.” One of the only ways to calm her down was to feed her a piece of candy, but that was only a temporary fix.

During the late 19th century, children with disabilities were often branded “idiots” and confined to a mental hospital for the rest of their lives. The Kellers adamantly opposed this approach, but one incident nearly convinced them to institutionalize Helen. When Helen discovered her younger sister sleeping in her favorite crib, she became enraged. She threw one of her famous temper tantrums, this time throwing herself on the crib, which crashed to the ground with the baby in it. Fortunately, the baby was unhurt, but Helen was clearly becoming a danger to herself and others. Her parents did not know what to do and felt they had few options. Raising a deaf-blind child in a normal household was uncharted territory at the time, or so they thought. While searching for some kind of assistance, the Kellers heard about Laura Bridgman, a deaf-blind woman who had learned to communicate through a manual form of sign language. Excited and desperate, Mr. Keller wrote a letter to Michael Anagnos, director of the Perkins Institute for the Blind. In the letter he explained Helen’s situation and asked for help. The help came in the form of a fiery, dedicated woman named Annie Sullivan.

It is impossible to tell the story of Helen Keller without also telling the story of Annie Sullivan, the woman known only as “teacher” to Helen. Sullivan knew a few things about overcoming disabilities. When she was only three years old, an infection developed in her left eye. Her family had no money to pay for the necessary treatment. She never fully lost her sight, but her eyes remained tired and weak for the rest of her life. Sullivan’s family life was also filled with struggles. Her mother died of tuberculosis and her father was an alcoholic, so Annie and her brother were sent to an orphanage. Her brother soon died in this filthy facility, which was infested with rats and lice. Annie was alone and without hope until someone told her of a special school for the blind—The Perkins Institute. After pleading her case to some compassionate adults, Annie was admitted to Perkins. When she arrived, she could not read or write. At the age of 14, she was placed in a kindergarten-level class. She was constantly teased about her perceived lack of intelligence, and she developed a quick temper. In fact, she was almost expelled because of her explosive outbursts and immature behavior. However, a teacher took Annie under her wing and became her role model. Annie began to apply herself and eventually realized her full potential, graduating as valedictorian of her class at Perkins.

Because of Annie’s success in overcoming her difficult background, the director of the Perkins Institute recommended her for the job of teaching Helen Keller. It almost seemed like fate that these two strong-willed individuals would come together and eventually form such a strong bond. Of their first meeting, Keller would later write, “The most important day I can remember in all my life is the one on which my teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, came to me.”

Like many worthwhile ventures, this teacher-student relationship got off to a rocky beginning. Sullivan arrived at the Keller home in 1887, when Helen was six years old. Sullivan thought Helen’s initial appearance was dreadful—her hair was knotted and disheveled, her clothes were dirty and worn. As Sullivan approached her, Helen mistook her for her mother and opened up her arms for a hug. Sullivan obliged the young girl, only to have Helen recoil. One biographer later wrote of this first encounter, “She growled and kicked like a wild animal until the others told Annie to let go.”

Sullivan broke the ice by giving Helen a doll, a present from the students at the Perkins Institute. Helen hugged the doll andmseemed happy with the present. Her teacher thought this was a good opportunity for Helen’s first lesson. She held up Helen’s hand, and through the use of manual sign language, she began spelling the word d-o-l-l into Helen’s palm. She then placed Helen’s hand on the doll. She repeated this pattern many times, hoping that Helen would eventually make the connection between the doll and the word. Sullivan took advantage of every teachable moment. She was constantly spelling new words into Helen’s hand. It was difficult work trying to get a deaf-blind child to understand that every object has a corresponding name. Sullivan believed that Helen was highly intelligent and capable of learning. However, because of her repeated temper tantrums, Sullivan came to the conclusion that Helen needed to be broken—much like a new Army recruit—before she could effectively teach her. Sullivan felt that Helen’s parents were a negative influence because they lacked discipline and provided no structure for her. They pitied and spoiled Helen—giving her plenty of sympathy, rather than empathy.

The consequence of their approach was abundantly clear whenever the family sat down for a meal. Helen was in the habit of taking whatever food she wanted from everyone else’s plate. She would wander around the table, sniffing each plate and picking up the food she wanted with her bare hands. Sullivan thought this behavior was rude and she intended to put a stop to it. When Helen reached for her teacher’s plate, Sullivan slammed her hand down on top of Helen’s hand. Wham! Helen was shocked at the response, but would not give up easily. Time after time, Helen tried to take Sullivan’s food. Her teacher repeatedly slapped her hand and pinned it to the table. Helen’s parents pleaded with Sullivan to just let Helen have her way. However, Sullivan was determined to win this fight. She was intent on teaching Helen a simple lesson in self-control. She suggested that the Kellers wait outside the room. With the door locked and the dining room emptied, the battle of wills ensued. Several hours later, Helen learned to sit at the table, fold a napkin in her lap, and eat with a spoon Sullivan knew that as long as Helen’s parents continued to give in to her tantrums, she would not be able to teach Helen what she needed to learn. Simple lessons had to be repeated over and over and over for Helen to learn basic concepts. Since the Kellers continued to interrupt the learning process, Sullivan asked to take Helen out of the home for a period of time. The Kellers agreed on the condition that they remain close by. Fortunately, the family had a small cottage on their property that would serve this purpose perfectly. The Kellers rearranged the furniture in the cabin before taking Helen on a long carriage ride. When Helen finally arrived at the cabin, she had no idea the trip had ended several hundred paces from where it began. For all Helen knew, she could have been in another state, or for that matter, on another planet. It was here that Sullivan built the type of relationship that was necessary to teach Helen how to communicate. She cared deeply about Helen and wanted to give her every opportunity to learn. She knew the only way to do this was in a controlled environment where she could repeat lessons every hour of every day. Helen would learn how to function in the world. The cottage became her classroom to learn those basic skills.

Week after week, Sullivan spelled words into Helen’s hand. It took time, but Helen began to catch on. She even began to spell the words back into her teacher’s hand. It became obvious that Helen enjoyed learning, but she still didn’t understand that each object was represented by a specific word. For example, Helen had difficulty understanding that any type of liquid inside a mug had its own unique name (other than m-u-g). One day Sullivan had an idea—an idea that would later be called “the miracle.” She took Helen out to a nearby water pump and began pumping water into a mug that Helen was holding. As she always did, Sullivan spelled the word w-a-t-e-r into Helen’s hand. Feeling the cold liquid flow over the mug and into her hands, something clicked in Helen’s brain. It was the “a-ha” experience of a lifetime. Of this experience, Helen later wrote, “I knew then that w-a-t-e-r meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!” Helen dropped the mug and hurriedly rushed about the property to learn the name of everything she touched. By day’s end she knew 30 words, but the most significant moment came when Helen touched her teacher’s face, as if to say, “What is your name?” Sullivan spelled out the word t-e-a-c-h-e-r.

On that day, the world opened up to Helen. Just as Sullivan’s life was transformed and given meaning by her teacher years before, she passed that gift on to Helen in the same way. In the span of a few months, Helen learned 625 new words. She even learned words to describe the feelings in her heart and the thoughts in her head. Of learning the word t-h- i-n-k, she later wrote, “In a flash I knew that the word was the name of the process that was going on in my head. This was my first conscious perception of an abstract idea.” Sullivan also taught her to read Braille, which allowed Helen to explore the world of literature, history, and poetry. Helen loved to learn and eagerly awaited each new lesson. As a result, she soon knew as many words as the average seven-year-old child. This was quite a remarkable feat, considering that she had learned her first word only one year earlier.

Helen’s family learned to use manual sign language as well. For the first time, they were able to have a conversation with Helen. Imagine what it must have been like for the Kellers to finally communicate with their beloved daughter. Kate Keller could not contain her emotions when she thought of the transformation in her child. She thanked Sullivan from the bottom of her heart. “I thank God every day of my life for sending you to us, but I never realized until this morning what a blessing you have been to us.”

Helen learned to type and soon began writing letters to the director of the Perkins Institute. He published the letters in the school newsletter, along with his comments about her amazing development. Local and national newspapers picked up the story. By the time Helen was eight, she was famous around the world. In fact, the first biography of her was published when Helen was only 10 years old. Helen’s favorite part of being famous was meeting interesting people and exploring new experiences. She became fast friends with Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, the man who had just recently invented the telephone. Together, they were invited to meet President Grover Cleveland, the first of 12 U.S. presidents whom Helen would meet in her lifetime.

She visited Boston, Niagara Falls, Cape Cod, and New York. She was fortunate enough to learn by doing. She swam and went sailing in the ocean, learned to ride a horse, and slid down snow-covered hills on a toboggan. Helen was experiencing a rich and full life, seemingly without limitations.

Helen had one more educational goal to accomplish. She wanted to attend college. At that time, it seemed unthinkable that a deaf-blind girl would be able to make it through four years of college. But Helen was determined. She would not listen to the naysayers. If there was a way, she was going to make her dream come true. She had her heart set on the best college in the land. Helen told her friends, “Someday I shall go to college—but I shall go to Harvard!” Upon learning that Harvard only accepted male students, she turned her attention to Radcliffe, the sister school of Harvard. Radcliffe had the same rigorous standards as Harvard and offered the same subjects. Students at Harvard and Radcliffe even took the same exams.

Helen was accepted to several prominent colleges, but in the end she decided to attend Radcliffe because she wanted to challenge herself. She began college in the fall of 1900 and graduated with honors in the spring of 1904. Helen attended classes with the other students, but she could not hear the teacher or see the blackboard. Therefore, Sullivan attended each class with Helen and spelled the lectures into her hand. Afterward, Helen would type up her notes from memory on a special device called a Braillewriter. Sometimes her assigned books were translated into Braille, but other times Sullivan had to read each book and translate it. It was as if Sullivan was attending school too. The two were almost inseparable, studying late into the night.

Going to college was not something Helen was expected to do, especially in her era. At the time, attending college was the exception, rather than the rule. Helen had already gained respect for her ability to overcome her disabilities and lead a full life. However, she always wanted to push herself. She had an incredible desire to learn, perhaps because she was constantly told what she could not do. To her, it was never good enough to settle or merely get by. She set her sights high and did whatever it took to achieve her dreams. Because of that spirit, she served as a role model for all people with disabilities. She provided hope where there once was none. Many people concluded that if Helen Keller could accomplish so much despite the overwhelming obstacles in her life, others with less significant problems could do the same. To this effect, Keller once wrote, “The most pathetic person in the world is someone who has sight but has no vision.” This is a timely reminder that we are all capable of more, provided we give our best effort.

Once Keller reached adulthood, she had no doubt that she would dedicate her life to helping others. As she put it, “Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.” First and foremost, she believed her purpose was making monumental differences in the lives of blind people. Even as a young girl, she began helping others. When Helen was just 10 years old, she heard about Tommy Stringer, a five-year-old boy who was also deaf and blind. Tommy lived in an orphanage and was unable to attend school. Helen empathized with Tommy and wanted to help him. She sent numerous letters to wealthy friends asking them to pay for his education at Perkins. The response was overwhelming. Enough money came in to cover the cost of Tommy’s tuition. Even as a child, Helen was capable of showing empathy to others less fortunate.

At the turn of the century, blindness was usually due to causes that were entirely preventable. Good medical care was scarce, especially for the poor, who generally had higher levels of illness and disability. Children were especially susceptible to infections that led to blindness. As an advocate for the American Foundation for the Blind for more than 40 years, Keller worked tirelessly to educate the public about simple measures that could prevent blindness in young children. She also lobbied the U.S. Congress to begin funding Braille books for the blind. Ultimately, she wanted people with disabilities to have equal access to education.

Keller also became involved in the social issues of her day. In the early 1900s, women were not yet allowed to vote in America. Keller joined the women’s suffrage movement, which eventually led to the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, giving women the right to vote. As a matter of principle, Keller thought it was essential for all citizens to enjoy equal rights in a democratic society. She also had tremendous empathy and respect for working-class Americans. Many of these men and women labored under dangerous conditions, often for very low wages. She wanted to help bring about equality between the “haves” and the “have-nots” of American society. Keller’s passion for helping the poor and the uneducated filled her days. In what she called “the crowning experience of my life,” she counseled wounded veterans of World War I and World War II. Whether these soldiers came home without legs, arms, eyes, or ears, she gave them hope that they could continue to make valuable contributions to society. “Although the world is full of suffering,” she once said, “it is also full of the overcoming of it.”

Despite Keller’s physical challenges, one of the biggest struggles in her life was with loneliness. She successfully overcame her physical disabilities, graduated from college, and changed the world through her empathic efforts. However, she never fully escaped her “dark and silent life.” She once told a dear friend, “I can’t imagine a man wanting to marry me. I should think it would seem like marrying a statue.” She did have a brief, secret romance with Peter Fagan, who was her secretary for a time. She and Fagan even filed for a marriage license. When Keller’s mother found out about the romance, however, she forbade the marriage and kept the two apart. It was a devastating personal loss, but Keller tried to remain optimistic. She often said, “When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one that has opened before us.”

Although Keller never experienced the joys of marriage, she found happiness behind other doors. She cherished reading and referred to books as her “book-friends.” Reading allowed her to escape the physical limitations of her world. Imagination and thought have no boundaries, and Keller loved to learn and explore. Through the ups and downs of her life, Keller had her faithful companion, Annie Sullivan. From the day they met in 1887, they were a team. When Sullivan died in 1936, Keller wrote, “I feel that her being is inseparable from my own, and that the footsteps of my life are in hers. All the best of me belongs to her—there is not a talent, or an inspiration, or a joy in me that was not awakened by her loving touch.”

Helen Keller’s remarkable life story is known to millions of people. During the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, national polls consistently rated Keller as one of the most admired women in America. Numerous biographies were written about her life. One of those biographers was Dorothy Herrmann, who had this to say about Keller: “She was so famous that everyone in the entire world knew who she was and followed her career with avid interest, not only ordinary people, but kings and queens and presidents.” British statesman Winston Churchill once called her “the greatest woman of our age.”

Keller wrote about the early years of her life in her autobiography, The Story of My Life, which was first published in 1904. The book was enormously popular and was translated into more than 50 languages. Over the last century, millions of people around the world have read Keller’s autobiography. Unfortunately, since her death in 1968, the book has become less popular. What once was common reading in middle and high school has been placed on the back shelves of libraries. According to a recent article, eighth-grade students are now more likely to know a joke about Helen Keller than to know that she wrote a highly acclaimed book. That is a shame, particularly because she wrote a 13 well-received books in her lifetime. “If all you know are stupid jokes about Helen Keller,” says educator Carol Jago, “you’re missing the whole richness of what other people share and understand about what this woman achieved.” It is important to bring the story of Helen Keller back into the consciousness of America’s youth. Her life, marked by hardship, perseverance, and kindness, should inspire empathy for those whom we regard as different or less fortunate. Even if we haven’t stood in someone else’s shoes, we can listen and imagine.

Discussion Questions

  1. Explain the difference between empathy and sympathy?
  2. How did Helen Keller lose her senses of sight and sound?
  3. The story of Helen Keller is truly about overcoming obstacles. List the ways that she overcame the obstacles of not being able to see and hear, and thereby accomplishing so much in her life?
  4. Provide at least two examples of Helen showing empathy for others.
  5. How does Helen Keller inspire you and how can her life make you a better person?


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