Women’s History Month: Anne Sullivan, Changing Perceptions

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March 13th, 2014

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sullivanWe’re all familiar with Helen Keller’s achievements, but how does a person left deaf, blind, and mute from an illness learn to communicate and read Braille? And eventually author books and advocate for the blind, among other impressive feats even for someone without disabilities? Meet Anne Sullivan.

After a serendipitous reading of Charles Dickens led Helen Keller’s parents to 21-year-old Sullivan at Boston’s Perkins Institute for the Blind, a lifetime relationship was born; one based on teaching, learning, rule-breaking, inspiration, and the inability to believe that knowledge has limitations.

Education to the Rescue
Sullivan’s early desire for an education was her attempt to escape poverty. Forced into Tewksbury Almshouse (a “poorhouse”) with her brother Jimmie when it became too expensive for her widowed father to care for two children on his own, Anne lived in horrid and packed conditions. Life at the poorhouse became even more difficult after Jimmie suddenly died, leaving Anne without any family, and when scarring from an eye disease gradually took her eyesight.

While there was little to hope for in a place like Tewksbury, it was where Sullivan found some promise after a fellow resident told her there were schools for the blind. Determined to change her circumstances, Anne followed inspectors visiting the poorhouse, and finally had the courage to approach Frank Sanborn with her story. Sanborn, who also was on the board at the Perkins School for the Blind, was moved by her yearning to go to school and agreed to admit Sullivan to Perkins.

When she entered the school at 14, Anne couldn’t read or write and had little in common with the other students, who were mostly from wealthy families. Although she displayed more “street smarts” than her classmates, her desire to catch up academically became her focus. In June 1886, Sullivan graduated as the valedictorian of her class.

SullivanReadingToKellerTeaching By Example
A story Helen Keller’s mother read in American Notes by Charles Dickens told of another deafblind student, Laura Bridgeman, at Perkins School for the Blind and inspired Keller’s parents to ask for some help with their daughter. Perkins recommended Anne Sullivan for the position.

Just as Anne was starting to wonder “what’s next?” following graduation, she took on the task of teaching deafblind and mute 7-year-old Keller, at her home in Alabama. Having a student without two major senses and unable to talk, Sullivan was forced to come up with alternative ways to teach Helen. Although Anne had immersed herself in the teachings of Samuel Gridley Howe and his work with other deafblind students, she developed her own methods of teaching based on the individual needs of her student.

Sullivan began to finger-spell into Keller’s hand. After resisting these attempts to write letters in her palm, and not understanding there was a word for everything, Helen recognized her first word after Anne poured some of it over her hand: “water.” Immediately following, Keller demanded to learn words for things as quickly as possible, and on that first day, Sullivan taught Helen 30 words. She gave a name to each new object Keller was interested in and her student started to learn through repetition and context—just like a hearing child. There was no need for a classroom; they had objects all around them wherever they went.

Anne’s tenacity in breaking through Helen’s mood swings, rebellion, and stubbornness inspired Keller to become even more determined in her studies. Soon Sullivan began using the Tadoma method, where students touch people’s lips as they speak and feel the vibrations of the words, to help Helen communicate. In the first six months under Anne’s tutelage, Helen learned over 500 words, several multiplication tables, and to read Braille. Keller could not learn quickly enough for her liking.

A Study in Gratitude
Their relationship as teacher and pupil eventually evolved into a very close friendship that lasted over 45 years. Helen became an author, an advocate for the blind, and the first deafblind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree, dedicating her experiences to Anne along the way. In her 1905 autobiography The Story of My Life, Keller wrote (about Sullivan):

“For a long time I had no regular lessons. Even when I studied most earnestly it seemed more like play than work.

“…I learned from life itself. At the beginning I was only a little mass of possibilities. It was my teacher [Anne Sullivan] who unfolded and developed them. When she came, everything about me breathed of love and joy and was full of meaning. She has never since let pass an opportunity to point out the beauty that is in everything, nor has she ceased trying in thought and action and example to make my life sweet and useful.

“It was my teacher’s genius, her quick sympathy, her loving tact, which made the first years of my education so beautiful. It was because she seized the right moment to impart knowledge that made it so pleasant and acceptable to me.”

Sullivan taught Keller to communicate. More importantly, she illustrated that her disabilities were not a roadblock, but merely a detour around a traditional means of education. Helen Keller reached amazing goals because of Anne Sullivan, illustrating that teachers are essential in inspiring students to surpass their expectations.

Interesting Facts About Anne Sullivan

  • At the age of five, Anne contracted an eye disease called trachoma, which severely damaged her sight. [i]
  • By the late 1920s, Sullivan had lost most of her vision. She experienced chronic pain in her right eye, which was then removed to improve her health. [ii]

  • In June 1886, not only did Sullivan graduate, but she also gave the Valedictory Address, during which she charged her classmates and herself with these words: “Fellow-graduates: duty bids us go forth into active life. Let us go cheerfully, hopefully, and earnestly, and set ourselves to find our especial part. When we have found it, willingly and faithfully perform it…” [iii]

  • No other individuals have had a greater influence on the education of children who are deafblind than Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller. No school in the United States has educated more children who are deafblind than Perkins. Sullivan’s child-centered methods are the centerpiece of the educational philosophy of the Perkins Deafblind Program. [iv]
  • Deafblind is its own condition. It’s not a subset of deafness or blindness and has its own sets of issues that require specific care and attention. [v]
  • As Helen Keller’s teacher, Anne Sullivan’s pay was $25 per month, plus room and board. [vi]

[i-ii] A+E Networks. “Anne Sullivan Biography.” Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, 2014.

[iii-iv] Perkins.org. “Anne Sullivan.”

[v-vi] AnneSullivan.ie. “About Us.”

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