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Sign Language for Children - It Can Change Lives: Helen Keller

Updated on July 28, 2011

How can sign language change lives?

You may have heard of Helen Keller. You might have read her story in grade school, seen the play "The Miracle Worker," or seen one of the many excellent movies about Helen.

She and her Teacher, Annie Sullivan, were quite famous in the early and middle parts of the twentieth century. Around 1902, Annie, aged twenty and herself partially blind, came to live with the Kellers just before Helen’s seventh birthday, to see if there was any hope of teaching Helen. At that time, Helen was more like a wild animal than a child: destructive, willful, unmanageable, and entirely unable to communicate. Within a few weeks’ time, by immersing Helen in a flood of fingerspelling, Annie penetrated Helen’s wall of ignorance and taught her that words mean things. This was the breakthrough that reopened the world to Helen.

Helen became famous for her astonishing achievements despite her challenges. She graduated from college, traveled the world with her beloved Teacher, was a friend of Presidents – and even learned to speak and to address large audiences, although she never heard her own voice.

What many people don’t know is that Helen Keller was born sighted and hearing. She was a “normal” baby until the age of approximately eighteen months. She then contracted a high fever that left her totally blind and deaf. As anyone who has been acquainted with an eighteen-month-old knows, they understand quite a lot of what they hear, and many of them are very verbal. So, by the time Helen lost her hearing she already had a good basis of language development. This undoubtedly served her well in her later endeavors.

I have what may be a unique perspective on kids and sign language. I had the privilege of performing the role of Annie Sullivan, Helen’s teacher, for more than ten years as part of an educational theatrical program. For four of those years, during the time my daughter was in third through sixth grade, she played the role of Helen with me. It was very exciting to share starring roles onstage with my own child!

My children are both sighted and hearing. I had already taught them fingerspelling and many of the formal signs, and had seen benefits in their social and linguistic development and in their school progress. However, the thing that really struck me during this remarkable time with my daughter was that sign language made possible a life of fulfillment, success and fame for Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan. Before Annie came to the Kellers, the family had regretfully discussed “putting Helen away” in an “asylum,” and had even visited a few of them. Back around 1900, asylums were horrific places, and certainly no place for a handicapped child. Annie was just graduating from the Perkins School for the Blind at the time, and had no other prospects for her own future. Annie and Helen were literally each other’s last and only chance. How differently so many lives would have turned out, if not for sign language!

Factoid: When Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, what he was really trying to invent was a hearing aid. His wife was deaf.

Amazing Photos of Helen

Helen as a young girl, most likely after Annie Sullivan had made the breakthrough that "words mean things."
Helen as a young girl, most likely after Annie Sullivan had made the breakthrough that "words mean things."
Helen graduating from college.  Annie had spelled all Helen's  courses into her hand.  Helen is reading the document in her lap, which is written in Braille.  Braille is a series of coded raised dots, which one reads by touch.
Helen graduating from college. Annie had spelled all Helen's courses into her hand. Helen is reading the document in her lap, which is written in Braille. Braille is a series of coded raised dots, which one reads by touch.
Notice that someone is still spelling into Helen's hand in this photo.
Notice that someone is still spelling into Helen's hand in this photo.

Sign Language Helps Children's Brains Develop

Marlee Matlin - Carrying on much of Helen Keller's work

 Marlee Matlin was first known as the young deaf actress from the show “Children of a Lesser God.” She has appeared in many movies and on many television shows and has given inspiring and thought-provoking performances. But there’s a lot more to her than meets the eye.

Marlee Matlin was born in 1965 in Illinois. Like Helen Keller, Marlee was hearing until the age of about 19 months. She then suffered a high fever which resulted in her deafness. Her family dealt with the issue in a very straightforward manner: they treated her just like her hearing brothers. She had a speech defect because of her deafness. Her brothers came up with a clever explanation: They would tell people that she sounded different because she had been born in another country. Marlee played around the neighborhood like all the other kids and had as normal a childhood as many children who hear.

After visiting several distant residential schools for the deaf, the Matlins enrolled Marlee in self-contained and mainstreamed classes near home. She was a strong-minded little girl and wasn’t about to let her hearing loss limit her unnecessarily.

At 7, Marlee we going to summer camp and appeared as Dorothy in an after-school production of “The Wizard of Oz” with a mixture of deaf and hearing children.

As an adult, Marlee became a devoted advocate for raising public awareness of the physically challenged. She has campaigned for improved educational opportunities for the deaf and blind as well. She is a spokeswoman for the National Captioning Institute. She was instrumental in the passing of a law that requires all televisions 13 inches or larger to have built-in chips that enable closed captioning for the deaf. This opened a much larger world for deaf viewers, and has been called a “godsend” for the deaf.

Helen Keller and her teacher, and other pioneers like them, paved the way for Marlee Matlin and others like her who have helped make such great strides in education of the deaf and deaf-blind.

ASL Sign Language Interpreters Have A Bright Future


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    • profile image

      Shelby Bitting 

      2 years ago

      I love Hellen keller.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      nice comments !!!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      i love this web site i mean it

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      what did helln really mean when she was helping blind children

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      nice love it

    • Rosemary Kurtz profile imageAUTHOR

      Rosemary Kurtz 

      8 years ago from Long Island, NY

      Thanks very much!

    • SamiAnne profile image


      8 years ago

      Love it. Nice Job


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