By the time Helen Keller arrived at the Perkins Institution in 1888, she already had begun a friendship with her teacher and tutor, "miracle worker" Anne Sullivan, that would last for almost 50 years. Together, they shattered society's expectations for what deaf, blind people can achieve.
But when the young Helen first met Sullivan — Helen was only 6 at the time, and Sullivan just 20 — nothing came easily. The student was a handful, often physically attacking others, including her teacher. She had been deaf and blind (what's now known as deaf-blind, or deafblind) since an illness struck her at 19 months old. Her world was a dark and scary place.
"We know that, when things did not go Helen's way, she would throw things, she would hit people," says Martha Majors, the education director of the deafblind program at the Perkins School for the Blind. "She didn't have a way to say, 'I want hot chocolate instead of tea,' or 'I don't want to do this activity.' So her first response was to be assertive in a negative way. We would call that low aggression."
Soon, though, Helen and her teacher bonded. They remain, today, the preeminent example for deafblind learning and teaching.
How Helen Keller Learned to Communicate
Sullivan, a valedictorian at Perkins, was dispatched to Helen's Alabama home by the school's director, Michael Anagnos. After patiently gaining Helen's trust, Sullivan began Helen's education using techniques practiced decades earlier by Samuel Gridley Howe, the first director of the Boston-area school.
Howe had famously taught English to a young deafblind girl, Laura Bridgman, by labeling objects with raised letters, finally jumbling these letters and having Bridgman rearrange them to spell the object's name.
Similarly, Sullivan "fingerspelled" into Helen's hand the name of separate objects. It wasn't until, famously, the teacher spelled "w-a-t-e-r" into Helen's hand, while running water over her hand that the connection between letters and words and objects was made, and the idea of language was revealed. It was just weeks after Sullivan had arrived in Alabama.
From "The Story of My Life," by Keller and Sullivan:
The two left Alabama for Perkins that winter and spent many subsequent winters at the school, where Helen, for the first time, communicated (through fingerspelling) with other children her age. As she got older, and with Sullivan constantly by her side, Keller learned other methods of communication, including Braille and a method known as Tadoma, in which hands on a person's face — touching lips, throat, jaw and nose — are used to feel vibrations and movements associated with speech. Keller, too, learned to speak, though it was one of the great sadnesses of her life that she was never able to speak as clearly as she would have liked.
How the Deafblind Communicate Today
The Perkins School for the Blind is one of a handful of schools throughout the United States that offers a program for deafblind students. Perkins' deafblind program teaches students from ages 3-22, incorporating a philosophy of total communication — basically, whatever is necessary to facilitate learning.
The deafblind, it should be noted, are not necessarily totally deaf or totally blind. As the National Center on Deaf-Blindness explains, a child is considered deafblind when a combination of hearing loss and loss of sight causes "such severe communication and other developmental and educational needs that they cannot be accommodated in special education programs solely for children with deafness or children with blindness."
Educators who specialize in teaching the deafblind now might include sign language or visual aids for those students with some vision. Several different types of hearing aids, not available in Keller's time, can facilitate learning for students with some hearing. Fingerspelling on hands (often called tactile fingerspelling), tactile sign language, and Braille are still often used. (Tadoma is not utilized nearly as much today, Majors says, partially because it is such an invasive way of communication.)
"The toolbox has changed quite dramatically," Majors says. "The population of children who are deafblind is dramatically different. Our job is to always change what we know to meet the communication needs of our children.
"Because our children are very, very individualized, our children come with different levels of vision and hearing loss, and most of it is directly related to what happened to them at birth. If you are, sadly, an adult that has speech and hearing, and then you become incapacitated ... you learn very differently. You already know what things look like and you already know what things sound like. That's a very different model."
Not every deafblind child learns the same, which makes the individualized attention — highlighted by the student-teacher relationship — so important. Not every student can be as successful at learning as Helen Keller, either.
Still, as Keller showed and as educators around the world continue to prove, every willing student, with the help of a good educator, can learn.
"Every single person who's deafblind can learn," Majors says. "It's our responsibility to figure out how to help them learn. And we must start with relationships and communication."