Anne Sullivan, the Irish-American who taught Helen Keller to speak

Irish Connections: Helen Keller went on to help transform attitudes to disability

Deaf-blind pioneer: Helen Keller feels the face of her Irish-American teacher, Anne Sullivan, in 1897. Photograph: Notman/Library of Congress

Deaf-blind pioneer: Helen Keller feels the face of her Irish-American teacher, Anne Sullivan, in 1897. Photograph: Notman/Library of Congress

 

Our catchphrase-crazy culture sometimes gives the impression that with a couple of inspirational wall posters, a celebrity endorsement and a sea of tears (preferably shed on live television), any disability, no matter how challenging, can be swept aside with ease.

People with direct experience of the one-step-forward, two-steps-back frustration and sheer hard work involved will beg to differ. Still, there was a time, not so long ago, when people with disabilities were treated very differently. Some were locked away; few were expected or encouraged to take part in “normal” society.

It can be hard to sort the fact from the Hollywood frippery, but at the centre of Helen Keller’s story is a very strong and totally factual Irish connection

One of pioneers who helped transform attitudes to disability was the deaf-blind American writer, feminist and political activist Helen Keller. Her story has been given the Hollywood treatment so many times that it can be hard to sort the fact from the frippery – but at the centre of it is a very strong and totally factual Irish connection.

It began in Famine times when a couple from Limerick, Thomas and Alice Sullivan, headed for the United States, settling in rural Massachusetts. They were poor and illiterate, but Thomas got a job as a farm labourer, and in April 1866 their first child, a girl, was born. In due course a younger brother, Jimmie, arrived.

Thomas was an alcoholic and, according to some reports, abusive. When Anne was five she contracted a bacterial infection that left her almost blind. Three years later Alice Sullivan died, and Thomas abandoned his children, who were put into an almshouse.

Conditions there were dire: the place was overcrowded and underfunded, housing an average of 940 men, women and children. Jimmie died within three months.

Anne was made of sterner stuff. She persuaded an inspector with Massachusetts Board of State Charities to sponsor her education at the Perkins School for the Blind, where she became one of the most promising students.

The summer after she graduated, the school’s director was contacted by a man from Alabama, Arthur Keller, who was looking for a teacher for his seven-year-old daughter, Helen. Sullivan arrived at their home in March 1887.

She must have been something of a 19th-century Super Nanny: young Helen was a wild child who terrorised the household with her tantrums. But Sullivan connected with the girl, who began to acquire signs at an astonishing rate and eventually learned to speak by touching Sullivan’s face to feel the vibrations from her nose, lips and larynx.

The young Helen Keller learned to speak by touching her teacher’s face, to feel the vibrations from her nose, lips and larynx

The movie versions, naturally, focus on Keller from that point until the final reel. But if it hadn’t been for Sullivan’s efforts, who knows what would have happened to that bright but unmanageable child?

Full-on teaching

There’s a clip on YouTube in which the two of them demonstrate Sullivan’s method of teaching Keller to speak. Their good humour and affection for each other are clear, but it’s pretty full-on for Sullivan, whose face and throat are covered by Keller’s hand. She must have spent countless hours in that position, for she worked with Keller for more than 50 years.

She also put her own life pretty much on hold. In 1905 she married John Albert Macy, a literary critic who had helped Keller with her books, but their marriage seems to have just faded away.

Despite repeated attempts to save her sight, some of which were partially or temporarily successful, Sullivan was visually impaired for most of her life and completely blind by 1935.

She died the next year, after a heart attack, with Keller holding her hand. Her ashes were interred at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, making her the first woman to be recognised for her achievements in this way.

At her funeral Bishop James E Freeman said: “The touch of her hand did more than illuminate the pathway of a clouded mind. It literally emancipated a soul.”

If you know of an Irish connection that would interest readers of this column, please email awallace@irishtimes.com with details of the story, as well as your contact address

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