Kelly M. Parisi

(WOMENSENEWS)–Helen Keller would have turned 125 this month. She was born on June 27, 1880.

Though Keller was one of the most famous women in the world during her life, most people now do not know her as the woman she was; the activist, peacemaker and women’s rights advocate.

Like many young people, the “Miracle Worker” was my introduction to Keller. I first read the play in my seventh grade English class where I learned about her as the famous deaf and blind child who discovered language at the water pump outside her house in Tuscumbia, Ala.

It wasn’t until years later when I took a position at the American Foundation for the Blind that I came to know more about the adult Keller.

“Some of us have imagined that we lived in a democracy,” Keller once said. “We do not. The democracy would mean full opportunity for all, it would mean that every child had a chance to be well, well fed, well educated and properly started in life. It would mean that every human being had a voice in the making of the laws and in exercising its privileges; it would mean that all men enjoyed the fruits of their labor. Such a democracy has never existed.”

Keller gave this speech somewhere between 1910 and 1919 when she was in her 30s. It reflects a Helen Keller I never knew growing up. Yet she is the woman who inspires me today.

Great Women Lost in History

As is the case with many great women, Helen Keller has been lost in history because we don’t tell her full story. Far too often we remember famous women for simply one thing. For instance, we remember Rosa Parks as the woman who refused to get off the bus because she was tired. In reality, she was a long-time civil rights activist who was tired of being mistreated because she was a woman of color. The same goes for Susan B. Anthony who is now remembered as the woman on the dollar coin, instead of the famous abolitionist and suffragist.

Behind these icons are stories of amazing women who changed our world.

Few people remember Helen Keller as a person ahead of her time. She fought tirelessly for women’s suffrage and spent years advocating for improvements in women’s and children’s health. Throughout her adult life, she supported efforts to make reproductive healthcare accessible to women in extreme poverty and established a close relationship with Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood.

At a time when very few women worked outside the home and there were only a handful of women in public office, Keller–who of course could not see or hear–traveled to 39 countries, bringing hope and inspiration to millions. Most notably, she served as a U.S. peace ambassador to Japan after the bombing of Hiroshima, where she was welcomed with open arms.

Her Biggest Passion

Her biggest passion was increasing opportunities for those marginalized by class, disability or gender. She was an early member of the American Civil Liberties Union and worked with seven U.S. presidents, receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor in 1964.

Until her death in 1968, Keller was an international celebrity.

Her name can still be seen across the globe today. Travel to almost any country in the world and you will find Helen Keller schools and organizations working on behalf of women and people with disabilities.

Ask any of those groups and they’ll tell you that her work is still very relevant. Blindness is an increasing global health problem that afflicts far more women than it does men. About 37 million people worldwide are blind and over 124 million people have low vision. In both categories, two thirds are women and the overwhelming majority live in poorer countries. It is Keller’s legacy that drives the fight to improve conditions for women and people with disabilities around the world.

At the American Foundation for the Blind, where she worked for over 40 years, Keller remains our inspiration.

She was a huge advocate for new technology and was instrumental in the legislative process that created the Talking Book program, helping people with disabilities experience the world of literature, drama, history and politics. Keller understood the importance of technology, which has revolutionized life for people with vision loss since her death. Assistive mobility and technology devices–such as guide dogs, long canes, computers with speech synthesizers, or scanners that convert text to braille–allow people with vision loss to live independently.

As we celebrate her 125th birthday this month, let’s remember not only Keller, but all great women in their entirety. Next time someone mentions the “Miracle Worker,” ask them if they know what became of Helen Keller. If they don’t, it’s your chance to tell her whole story.

Kelly M. Parisi is vice president of communications at the American Foundation for the Blind. She was previously the director of communications at the Ms. Foundation for Women.

For more information:

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