'Helen Keller: A Daring Adventure' at American Foundation for the Blind
NEW YORK -- "Cat, cat, cold, cold, doll, doll" were Helen Keller's first handwritten words, and they represent an important moment in the life of a woman who helped bring about meaningful change for the disabled by writing incessantly to state legislatures, Congress and presidents.
Written on a single page in neat handwriting, the words are the first document to greet visitors at a new exhibit at the Foundation for the Blind's midtown Manhattan headquarters. Elsewhere in the exhibition, a photograph shows a blind salesman operating a newsstand with an accompanying letter from Keller to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that says: "Work is the only way for the blind to forget the dark, and the obstacles in their path."
The foundation is letting the public see some of its vast Helen Keller holdings as part of a fundraising effort to digitize the archival collection totaling 80,000 letters, photographs, books and artifacts bequeathed by Keller, who worked for the foundation for 44 years.
Keller, whose childhood is depicted in the play and film "The Miracle Worker," lost her hearing and vision at 19 months of age. She wrote her first words when she was 7 -- 15 weeks after her beloved teacher, Anne Sullivan, arrived at the Keller household in 1887.
Her progress is demonstrated in another letter two years later in which she writes: "I study about the earth and the animals, and I like arithmetic exceedingly. I learn many new words too. Exceedingly is one that I learned yesterday." The two documents are among 61 of Keller's personal items on display, 31 of which have never before been in a public exhibition.
Keller joined the American Foundation for the Blind in 1924, three years after it was founded. She became "a prolific writer, a peacemaker, a passionate advocate, not just for blind and disabled people, but for equal rights," said Carl R. Augusto, the foundation's president.
Many services for the disabled are due to Keller's efforts, such as talking books, a uniform Braille system, increased Social Security payments for the blind and legislation that allowed visually impaired people to run newsstands.
Helen Selsdon, the foundation's archivist, hopes visitors will discover the breadth of Keller's accomplishments. "She transcended her time. She was unflinching to her commitments to her ideals . . . [and] her activism," the archivist said.
Keller wrote to Roosevelt asking his support for the foundation's Talking Book Program. After he signed an executive order in 1935 establishing the National Library Service for the Blind and appropriating funds for the program, she thanked him, calling it "the most constructive aid to the blind since the invention of Braille."
Keller died in 1968 at age 87, four years after receiving the nation's highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Augusto imagines that if she were alive today, she would be leading the foundation in expanding the use of technology to people who have disabilities.
Other personal effects on display include Keller's desk; a phone that provided her with a direct link to the fire department; and her 1955 honorary Oscar for the documentary based on her life, "Helen Keller in Her Story." The exhibition, running through July 30, is accessible to people with vision loss.