Helen Keller Exhibit Opening in NYC

Manhattan exhibit tells the fuller story of Helen Keller

1953 Helen Keller

"Cat, cat, cold, cold, doll, doll" were Helen Keller's first handwritten words, and they represent an important moment in the remarkable 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 a neat handwriting, the words are the first document to greet visitors at a new exhibition, "Helen Keller: A Daring Adventure," opening May 7 at the midtown Manhattan headquarters of the American Foundation for the Blind.

Elsewhere in the exhibit, 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.

The Associated Press was given an exclusive, early tour of the exhibit.

Keller, whose childhood is depicted in the play and film "The Miracle Worker," lost her hearing and vision at 19 months. She wrote her first words when she was 7 years old, just 15 weeks after her beloved teacher, Anne Sullivan, arrived at the Keller household in 1887.

Her enormous progress is demonstrated in another letter just 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. She joined the American Foundation for the Blind in 1924, three years after it was founded.

"This is an extraordinary event by our organization to provide this kind of public access," said Carl R. Augusto, the foundation's president.

Keller became "a prolific writer, a peacemaker, a passionate advocate, not just for blind and disabled people, but for equal rights," Augusto said.

Keller was constantly pushing for more and better programs, products and technologies for the disabled. Many services for the disabled today are due to her 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 come to understand the breadth of Keller's accomplishments.

"She transcended her time. She was unflinching to her commitments to her ideals ... her activism," she said.

The press clippings, photographs, letters and artifacts in the exhibit demonstrate Keller's huge influence.

Keller knew great minds and leaders, from W.E.B. Du Bois to Albert Einstein to Dwight Eisenhower and could work with anyone, Selsdon said

"She did more than anyone hopes to do with all our senses. She flew around the world in the 1940s and '50s when she was in her 60s and 70s," Selsdon said.

Keller wrote to Roosevelt asking his support for the foundation's Talking Book Program. After he signed an executive order establishing the National Library Service for the Blind in 1935 that appropriated funds for the program, she thanked him, calling it "the most constructive aid to the blind since the invention of Braille."

She was born to a prominent Alabama family, and Alexander Graham Bell and Mark Twain were great admirers of hers. It was Twain who coined the phrase "miracle worker" in describing Sullivan's remarkable work with Keller.

Visitors will learn that Keller was not only an advocate for the disabled, but also a suffragette, socialist and an early member of the American Civil Liberties Union.

She was in favor of birth control as early as 1916, according to a letter she wrote to a socialist magazine defending anarchist Emma Goldman for advocating birth control. Two months earlier, in a letter to Keller, Goldman said she had been looking for "a big, brave American woman" for 25 years and "you are among the very few."

And in a 1933 letter to German students who burned her book "How I Became a Socialist" she wrote: "History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas."

She also visited 35 countries, helping to open schools and revolutionize services for the blind. The gifts she received from dignitaries and admirers are part of the exhibition. Among those being shown for the first time are a silver-bound bible from her 1952 visit to Israel and a Zulu shield with an accompanying letter from the tribe that says the shield "is an equipment of a great warrior and that is how we think of you."

Keller died in 1968 at age 87, four years after receiving the nation's highest civilian award, the 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 with 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. The foundation said it hopes to feature additional material from the archive in future exhibitions.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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