I invite you to see the first steps from darkness to light as Helen Keller perceived them, helped by her lifetime companion and teacher, Annie Sullivan.
At the age of one year and a half, Helen Keller ran an extremely high fever that lasted for days, and caused her blindness and deafness. The most likely cause of the fever was meningitis. As Helen grew, she could not see the world or hear it. She was able to "feel" sound through vibrations. Her family realized she needed help to be able to communicate with the world, and hence introduced her to finger spelling.
Finger spelling is a system of communication for the deaf and blind where each letter of the alphabet is shown by a different hand gesture. For those who are both deaf and blind, the letters are felt in the palm of the hand. This system was invented by Spanish monks. They used this system to communicate with each other when they were under a vow of silence.
After a careful consideration, Annie Sullivan (at the age of twenty) accepted the challenge of opening the world for Helen. Annie understood a part of Helen's condition, as she herself went through a similar hardship. At the age of three, Annie Sullivan was infected with trachoma, an eye infection caused by bacteria. As her eyes became worse, she began to wear a pair of dark glasses to protect her sensitive eyes from sunlight.
On 3rd of March 1887, Annie stepped off the final train in the small southern town of Tuscumbia, Alabama.
When she first laid her eyes on Helen, she saw a six year old girl whose hair hung about her in tangles, wearing a dress and pair of stockings filthy and torn, and brown shoes tied with white strings. It was as if the Kellers couldn't afford better.
To Annie, Helen seemed like a wild animal. She saw that Helen's hands were her eyes, and the world would open to Helen through touch. Annie's first morning in Keller's home was spent in teaching the word "doll" to Helen. Helen had discovered a doll in Annie's suitcase. She took Helen's hands and patted the head of the doll and then finger-spelled the letters d-o-l-l in Helen's palm. Annie's goal was to teach her little student to connect the word "doll" with the object.
Helen copied her teacher's hand movements, but did not associate the movement with the doll. The key to opening Helen's world was to connect the object with its name. The girl's curiosity was piqued as Annie continuously finger spelled in Helen's hands. The young student tried to finger spell into her dog's paws, to help her practice even more.
When Helen misbehaved, Annie would not "talk" to her. As you can easily imagine, this was torture for Helen. The little girl would be back in her world of silence and darkness. She learned that if she wanted companionship, she'd have to behave.
Helen was learning more and more words every day, but was not connecting them with their objects. Annie had been working with Helen for a month but her young student did not understand that things and actions were different, and words simply had no meaning for her. The morning of April the 5th 1887, a month after Helen and Annie had met, Annie had an idea. She took Helen's hands and led her to the outside water pump. Annie showed the little student how to hold the mug under the water. Annie pumped the water into the mug and over Helen's hands, then Annie spelled "w-a-t-e-r" into her little palms - slowly at first, then faster. Helen dropped the mug and her face lit up. Annie spelled the same word - "w-a-t-e-r" - over and over again in Helen's palms. Helen understood! Every object that she knew had a name!
Helen ran around touching everything and Annie spelled the name of the object Helen touched. On April the 5th 1887, Helen Keller learned thirty new words!
In her autobiography, she described the night as one where "for the first time I longed for a new day to come." By the end of the summer she learned 625 words and in a year's time her vocabulary consisted in 900 words. Helen would come to call Annie "Teacher" her entire life.
Six year old Helen in her black, silent world "saw light" and "heard sounds" with her hands for the very first time. She learned to speak, and read in four different languages. She could write and type on a typewriter. She fought for the right of women to vote, racial equality, child labor and unfair work practices. She met kings, emperors and presidents. She proved to the world that she could do anything that she set her mind to, and that the disabled could do the same!