Helen Keller: Author, Political Activist and Advocate, Fundraiser, Lecturer and American Hero
Intro: It is the delight of AFB CareerConnect to present this Success Story of Helen Keller, an honorary CareerConnect Mentor, whose visage still graces the American Foundation for the Blind. Forty four years after her death, we celebrate her 132nd birthday with this account in similar tradition of our other Success Stories. Using information gleaned from AFB's Helen Keller Archives this story talks to you about her life and work as a person with vision and hearing loss. Although it has been years since she passed away the things she accomplished remain a great testament to the abilities of those who are blind or deaf-blind. Learn about her jobs and responsibilities, the technology she used, and how and why she succeeded.*
The Story: Helen Adams Keller would be proud to know that you are interested in her life's work. Throughout her life she was asked many times about her work and job title but, in truth, her work encompassed more than a job title covers. Officially, she was a Vision Loss Advocate and Fund-Raiser for the blind and deaf-blind. She ended up with this marvelous job as a result of the experience she gained working for the blind as a private individual, beginning in 1905. Then in 1924 she became employed by the American Foundation for the Blind and this is where she worked for the next 44 years.
Helen lived at her home in Westport, Connecticut from 1938 until she passed away at the age of 87. She worked primarily from home but also visited the AFB offices in Manhattan, which were then on 16th Street. She frequently traveled abroad for work.
Her days were never typical! It's likely they may have gone something like this: she and her companion, Polly Thomson, would rise early and have breakfast together. Since services like NFB Newsline or other on-demand digital formats now commonly used in place of print did not yet exist, Polly would read the newspapers to her so that she could keep up with news and other current events.
As International Relations Counselor of the American Foundation for Overseas Blind (now Helen Keller International) she answered all of her own correspondence. This in itself was a job! She was in touch constantly with programs for those with vision loss from all over the world. Day in and day out, letters from many lands came faster than she could reply to them with requests for messages to those who cannot see, hear or have multiple disabilities. Writing letters and speeches would take her all morning. Next she would stop for a quick lunch on her porch with Polly and Herbert Haas, their housekeeper. After lunch Herbert would get the car ready and take Polly and her to the AFB offices in Manhattan. There she would meet with staff to discuss the upcoming fund-raising efforts and learn how she could assist both here and abroad. While at the office she was sometimes called upon to try out the latest prototype assistive technologies of that time.
Depending on when they returned home, she would work some more on her correspondence or eat directly and then perhaps play a game of checkers with Polly in the living room surrounded by the dogs. Her day always ended with a glass of whiskey for a night cap and then it was off to bed with her beloved braille bible or the poetry of Walt Whitman.
Helen Keller's Work at the American Foundation for the Blind
During the years that she worked at AFB she came into contact with many of its staff members, but there are some that stood out in her memory. In 1924, M. C. Migel, Chairman of the Board of AFB, hired Teacher, Polly and Helen. The Major—as he was known within the organization—referred to them as The Three Musketeers! Major Migel did an enormous amount for the organization financially and for these three women at a personal level. He was extremely well connected and used those connections to assist the fledgling organization. Teacher and Helen didn't always agree with Major Migel and they had their differences of opinion, but usually managed to work things out amicably.
Migel's right-hand man was AFB's Executive Director Robert B. Irwin. Bob Irwin, who was blind himself, was a stalwart leader and pioneer in the blindness field. Bob was the man in the trenches; he was always alert to new scientific methods that would improve the lives of those with vision loss and was a pugnacious fighter for the rights of those who are blind. In the 1950s Polly and Helen worked with a new crop of AFB staff members including Robert M. Barnett and Eric Boulter, both of whom continued to work tirelessly throughout the years to assist them.
People often asked Helen how, as a deaf-blind person, she got her job. Helen would not want to seem boastful but by the time AFB was founded in 1921 she had already been involved in blindness advocacy work, and was already quite well known. AFB's work mirrored the work that she was focused on and committed to. It was a very good match! To get the better jobs never be too proud to take what you think are lesser jobs or volunteer for the experience. This gets your foot in the door and provides the networking you need. In part, volunteering and networking helped establish Helen Keller's illustrious career.
Her work at AFB was a natural progression from the work she began almost two decades earlier. She was involved with the New York Association for the Blind from its inception in 1905. In its efforts to demand services and accommodations for veterans who had lost their sight, in 1916 she became involved with the American, British, French and Belgian Permanent Blind Relief War Fund in its efforts to demand services and accommodations for veterans who had lost their sight. As well, she took time to visit military hospitals during World War II. At that time Helen stated, "Sadly, the need for programs for war veterans remains as necessary as ever, as does the battle to demand substantive improvements for those with vision loss at the state and federal levels." One might argue that this still holds true today.
Helen Keller's Job Accommodations and Adaptations
Nowadays accommodations for people with disabilities are quite different than they were during Helen's lifetime. Ever since she was a young girl, she was fortunate to have a companion escort her to her various speaking engagements. Her companions constantly signed into her hand so she knew exactly what was taking place and the questions she was being asked. Although some independent persons who are blind might disagree with her, with this kind of constant assistance she felt she had no need for a cane. Similarly, she felt she never needed a dog-guide (but always had loads of dogs as pets!).
Helen's housekeeper, Herbert, drove her to the office and every effort was made to assist her in her work and travels. Books were continually translated into braille for her and the Library of Congress sent titles in braille to her home in Connecticut called Arcan Ridge. Polly served as Helen’s reader and would read her mail and the newspapers to her, as her teacher did so many years ago.
Helen's home was purpose built for her convenience, with banisters and garden railings providing easy access around the house and garden. Her office was very comfortable and practical with a large bay window in back of her and the edges of her equally large desk had a small wooden lip, ensuring that her papers didn't fall off. Her braille writer and typewriter still reside on her desk at AFB's headquarters in New York City. Innovations in writing technology such as portable braille writers were always made accessible to her, facilitating her work immensely. An interesting item in her house was a modified telephone that provided a direct line to the fire department. In case of emergency, she was to pick up the receiver, press the single white button on the telephone itself and call for help. These were many of the accommodations she used on a daily basis both on and off the job.
What Helen Loved Most About Her Work
According to Helen, the best thing about her job was that she saw "enormous positive changes in attitudes towards those who were blind in the United States and around the world. Schools were built and laws passed to ensure that Americans with vision loss have access to the same rights and privileges that are given its sighted citizens. It has been a real blessing to have had opportunities to work on a national level to implement change through legislation at the state and federal levels." Helen stated that "All these things have provided extraordinary job satisfaction." Similarly, she got to meet many wonderful and interesting people through her work and traveled to amazing places in 39 countries. She also attended many functions during her work for the blind and deaf-blind. However, this job required long hours and often punishing schedules. When she toured abroad she frequently made visits to at least 5 centers or organizations in one day, this was repeated over a 3 month trip. Her companion—Polly Thomson's health was seriously undermined as a result of so strenuous a schedule. She was always so happy to return home to Arcan Ridge and the tranquility of her garden.
If you are looking to do work similar to what Helen Keller has done, don't take the job if you're looking for immediate results (or short working days)! And don't take the job if you're shy to ask for money! Over the years, she solicited money from leading capitalists and financiers whose own political opinions didn't always agree with her own. And she met with leaders and government officials whose philosophies were equally divergent. But Helen was one of those people who always sought to reach out to find the common ground where different opinions can co-exist and respect for different viewpoints could be retained.
Be prepared for a long battle to achieve parity in our society for those who are blind or visually impaired. Many years ago she said, "God has given each one of us a task, which we can perform better than anyone else. We must find out what that task is, and how to do it in the best way possible." Working as an advocate and fund-raiser in the blindness field might not be the path for you—but if it is—we hope that you will find it as rewarding as Helen Keller did.
*Many thanks to Helen Selsdon, AFB Archivist, for her help researching and verifying the information in this article. To learn more about Helen Keller and her advocacy and work for the blind, please visit AFB's Helen Keller Archives.