Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Helen Keller, the first deaf-blind person to graduate from college

In 1882, a baby girl caught a fever that was so fierce she nearly died. She survived, but the fever left its mark.  She could no longer see or hear.  Helen Keller was born on June 27, 1880 in Alabama, the daughter of a newspaper editor.  There has never been a precise diagnosis of the type and cause of the fever that struck Helen (Royal National Institute for the blind, 1995).  The Kellers sought advice and remedies for Helen.  As she approached the age of 7, they visited Alexander Graham Bell in Washington, DC. An activist in deaf education,  Bell recommended they send Helen to the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston.  A recent graduate of the school, Anne Sullivan, also known as Annie, was offered to tutor Helen.  In March 1987, Annie arrived in Tuscumbia, Alabama to live with the Kellers as governess (“Tragedy to Triumph,” no date).

Over the next several years, Helen had learned to communicate many of her wishes with various signs.  There were some 60 gestures she had invented to ask for things or identify people.  But, she was otherwise frustrated in her attempts to communicate, and her frustration led to behaviour problems (R.N.I.B, 20).  By the summer of 1887, some four months after Annie arrived, and as Helen approached her seventh birthday, she had a vocabulary numbering hundreds of words and was forming simple sentences.  She could print using block letters.  To write, she used a grooved writing board that was placed over a sheet of paper.  Helen wrote the letters in the grooves, writing with a pencil and guiding the end of the pencil with the index finger of her hand (Tragedy to Triumph, no date).  She began to mail letters to her relatives.  That same summer Helen also learned the Braille alphabet.

In the spring of 1888, as Helen approached 8 years old, she left Alabama with Annie to go to Perkins School in Boston.  This was the first of several trips to the school.  Helen was exposed to an array of resources and her abilities increased.  She learned quickly and was dubbed the “miracle child.”   In her ninth year Helen began to speak.  Her first speech teacher, Sarah Fuller, had her feel the shape of her mouth as she spoke.  As she learned to speak, she also learned to read lips with her fingers (“Tragedy to Triumph,” no date).

As Helen approached the end of her regular schooling, she  began to think of college.  Some said she should not do it, but many schools wanted her to attend.  She chose the one college in the United States who did not want her, Radcliffe.  They thought she could not compete with “sighted” students and this was tantamount to a challenge for Helen (R.N.I.B, 2001).   First, she passed her entry exams and then, with Anne Sullivan as a translator, attended regular classes. Helen Keller noted (1961):

I remembered my first day at Radcliffe. It was a day full of interest for me.  I had looked forward to it for years.  A potent force within me, stronger than the pleadings of my heart, had impelled me to try my strength by the standards of those who see and hear (p. 88).

While still at Radcliffe College, Helen began her writing career which continued for 50 years.  Helen proved to be a remarkable scholar. She had phenomenal memory as well as shy determination to succeed. While she was still at college she wrote “The Story of my Life” which was an immediate success (“Tragedy to Triumph,” no date).  She went on to write 11 other books and numerous articles on blindness, deafness, social issues and women’s rights. She graduated cum laude in 1904.

In 1921, the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) was organized.  Helen was invited to be spokesperson for the organization.  She traveled extensively giving speeches and raising funds for the blind (R.N.I B, 2001). She became a suffragette and a socialist, demanding equal rights for women and working-class people.

Helen Keller lived on into retirement.  She often walked the grounds of Arcan Ridge and could be seen talking to herself with her fingers (R.N.I.B, 2001). She died in the afternoon of June 1, 1968, just before her 88th birthday.  


1.   Keller Helen, (1961). The Story of My Life, Dell Publishing company Inc. New York.

2.  Royal National Institute for The Blind (2001). The Life of Helen Keller, retrieved from

3.  Author and date unknown, Tragedy to Triumph, retrieved from keller/life.html

Prepared by Erica Dennis (OISE/UT)

Citation: Dennis, Erica (2001). 1904: Helen Keller, the first deaf-blind person to graduate from college. In Daniel Schugurensky (Ed.), History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century [online]. Available:  (date accessed).

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