History KS3: Helen Keller - The writer who proved her disability was not debilitating

Sanjeev Bhaskar explains how deaf-blind writer Helen Keller was defined by what she could do.

In the early part of the 20th century she was one of the most famous women in the world - she was an author, she was an Oscar winner and she had the ear of presidents for over 60 years.

She was born in Alabama in the 1880s. And when she was just 18 months-old she contracted an illness that left her deaf and blind.

Her parents hired a teacher, Ann Sullivan, to help her communicate. Anne took Helen to a water pump and as the water splashed on her hands, she spelt W-A-T-E-R in her hand.

That day, Helen Keller learnt 30 words. She went on to learn not just English language but French, German, Greek and Latin.

She became an activist campaigning for the rights of disable people – she persuaded Congress to change the law so that books in braille would be made available in libraries.

She wrote many books on social issues, such as segregation, women’s suffrage, capitalism and class struggle that were published across the world.

When the Nazis were burning books, her books were deemed dangerous enough to be burnt. In the Second World War, she campaigned for all those fleeing Fascism to be accepted into America.

She spent the war visiting army hospitals to give solace to the wounded.

She wanted to campaign for all people’s rights and set up the American Civil Liberties Union which to this day protects worker’s rights.

She traveled the world her campaigning not just for her own cause but for everyone and her personal triumph was not allowing her disability to hold her back.

This short film is from the BBC series, Icons.

Teacher Notes

Key Stage 3 - History

This short film could be used to discuss:

  • Key American figures in the 20th century
  • Disability history
  • American socialism
  • The history of deafness and blindness
  • Communications studies
  • Pacifism
  • Braille

Curriculum Notes

This short film is suitable for teaching history at KS3 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and Third and Fourth Level in Scotland.

More from Icons:

Neil Armstrong - First person on the Moon
Marie Curie - The person who discovered radium and polonium
Dr Martin Luther King - American Civil Rights leader
Nelson Mandela - Freedom fighter and South Africa's first black president