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The Helen Keller Society was originally established in 1958, having been inspired by the great Helen Keller herself. Over the years the Society has evolved from being a home for single blind ladies to a retirement facility for both sighted and visually impaired residents, as well as providing low vision services to the greater community.

2018 marked our 60th anniversary in aged care, and 20 years since we commenced our low vision services within the community. 

Just as the Society’s purpose has evolved over the years, so too has our inspiration for how we conduct our business. Not only do we take our original inspiration from the inimitable Helen Keller herself, but also the devoted loving care of Anne Sullivan is what keeps us inspired on a daily basis in our work with the elderly, the visually and hearing impaired, and their families.

We commissioned a portrait to be painted which now hangs in our hallway, accurately depicting the nurturing love, care and compassion Anne extended to Helen, miraculously changing her life for the better. It serves as a constant reminder to each of us here at the Society of what we aspire to achieve on a daily basis.

The ability of Helen to surmount her handicaps and learn to read, write, and speak despite her deafness and blindness, was nothing short of a miracle. However, Helen herself believed that her success was due to the constant support and undying encouragement from her teacher, Anne, who persevered in showing her how to establish some sort of communication and contact with a world that Helen could not see, hear, nor understand.  Suffering from an ailment that left her own sight impaired, Anne was able to understand the fear, loneliness, and frustration that Helen felt in her tiny isolated world of silence and darkness, and this understanding allowed Anne to empathise with her. 

Like Helen, Anne was born a healthy child in April 1866. At age 5 she contracted trachoma, which left her sight impaired.  This misfortune allowed her to comprehend the fear and loneliness that Helen was living in every day and understand Helen’s need to strike out at a world that she was excluded from, for Anne herself had experienced the same frustrations as a child. Unfortunately for Anne, there was no understanding nor a compassionate teacher to guide her and calm her frustrations with love and care.

After her mother’s death, Anne was sent to a state poorhouse in Tewksbury, where the living conditions were extremely unsanitary, and death was a frequent visitor among the inhabitants. Anne herself recounted that very much of what she remembered about Tewksbury was indecent, cruel, melancholy, gruesome in the light of grown-up experience, leaving her with the conviction that life was primarily cruel and bitter and the doubt of life or, for that matter, eternity, was long enough to erase the terrors and ugly blots scored upon her mind during those dismal years from age 8 to 14.

Helen’s great-grandniece, Keller Johnson-Thompson, tells a story of how an elderly floor maid at the Tewksbury Institute changed the course of events for Anne. She was a wild and unruly child, often kicking, screaming, spitting and biting. Anne was often caged in an effort to control her. This maid felt terribly sorry for the little girl and one day baked her a cake, which she left within reach of the cage for the little girl to eat. This small, very significant, act of kindness, opened the door for a friendship. Thereafter, this maid was the only person able to calm Anne sufficiently so that she could finally be examined by doctors, at which point they discovered she was almost blind, which explained her terrible fear and previously wild, uncontrollable behaviour.

Anne understood that her only escape from the pathetic state of the other inhabitants of Tewksbury was education, and saw her chance when the State Board of Charities sent a commission to investigate the awful conditions of the poorhouse. She ventured to tell the chairperson of the Board of her wish to go to school, and was sent to the Perkins Institution for the Blind in October 1880, where she worked industriously to acquire the education that she had yearned for. 

The time that Anne spent at the Perkins Institution further prepared her for her success with the education of Helen.  Anne was a headstrong individual by nature, with a quick temper, and at Perkins Institution she found to her humiliation, that her childhood at Tewksbury had left her ignorant about the basics of schoolwork, making her a source of ridicule for insensitive teachers, and fellow students. What she truly needed at this stage to help her discard the negative influences of Tewksbury, and allow her to grow in spirit, as well as in mind, was care and compassion, not ridicule.  Therefore, Anne shunned authority and craved understanding; the more that the domineering teachers attempted to restrain her, the harder she rebelled, but she graciously accepted the advice and admonitions of well-meaning and sympathetic teachers. These experiences taught her that patience and compassion were the keys to developing a positive relationship between a teacher and student, and ultimately led to her development as a nurturing figure for Helen.

Helen, in turn, suffered from a situation that was very similar to her teacher’s. She was born on 27 June 1880, and every sign pointed to the fact that she would be an intelligent and promising child; however, both Helen and her parents were robbed of this hope as when she was only nineteen months old, she was struck by an illness that left her both blind and deaf. 

Although Helen lived with her family and was supported by them, their presence did not prevent her from feeling the loneliness and desperation of an individual locked in an isolated world, that was not only dark, but also silent.  There was no way for Helen to witness or fully comprehend what was going on around her. Helen’s parents did not know how to communicate with her or help her, so they gave into Helen’s every demand without teaching her proper manners, or anything else for that matter. 

The understanding that Helen desperately needed for her to be able to break through the barrier that her handicaps created, did not enter her life until the appearance of 21 year old Anne, on 3 March 1887. Anne had personally experienced what it felt like to be cut off from the rest of the world, and could identify with her student’s fear of loneliness and the need to vent her frustrations against a most perplexing black and silent world. From the moment she arrived, Anne began to sign words into Helen's hand, trying to help her understand the idea that everything has a "name".

With her prior experiences at the Perkins Institution where she herself yielded to the goodwill, but not the authority of her teachers, Anne recognised that to gradually chip away the wall that Helen had built around herself required compassion and empathy. However, she was also aware that to give in to her wilful pupil’s every demand was not the key to developing a trusting relationship between teacher and student. Anne therefore approached Helen with an understanding but firm attitude, whereby she endeavoured to teach her student through patience and perseverance, and Helen eventually succumbed to her teacher’s loving efforts to guide her away from her world of darkness and temper tantrums. 

The break in Helen’s dark, silent prison occurred a mere month after Anne’s arrival, when Helen finally realised that the words that Anne had repeatedly spelled into her hands corresponded to certain objects, and she found a means of communication with a world previously hidden from her due to her blindness and deafness. The first word for which she drew this connection was water, which became a symbol of a rebirth for Helen. She is later quoted as having said, “that living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free.”

Anne did not stop at simply showing Helen manners and helping her realise that words have meanings, but studied various subjects diligently to prepare herself to be a better teacher for Helen. Disregarding her doctors’ warnings about the amount of rest and care that her impaired eyes needed, Anne pored over many books to seek the knowledge that she felt would be beneficial for her enthusiastic student, despite the harm that these long hours of reading was doing to her own eyes. This sacrifice on Anne’s part earned Helen’s deep gratitude.

Anne was no longer only a teacher to Helen, but a lifetime companion as well as a selfless and giving maternal figure, who hoped to create a meaningful life for her pupil, despite Helen’s handicaps. By working with Helen, she not only gave her student a chance at rebirth, but also experienced a “second chance” herself. In a sense, Anne and Helen were children growing up together. This determined teacher was finally rewarded for her efforts with an extremely eager student, who demonstrated a thirst for knowledge.  Anne's nurturing and care allowed a lost and lonely child to grow and mature into a selfless and compassionate adult, who followed in her mentor’s footsteps. The work and hope of Anne helped the unfortunate inspired Helen become an advocate for the blind and deaf. 

Helen gave speeches and wrote articles in the hopes of raising funds to create better opportunities for others who had been afflicted with the same handicap as herself. Believing strongly that the blind and deaf should be treated like normal people, “she helped institute several social reforms, including persuading employers to hire blind and deaf people, fought for changes in the workplace that would make jobs for blind people easier to obtain, and persuaded the Work Progress Administration to establish talking books for the blind.” Helen’s work was not limited to creating and finding better opportunities for the blind and deaf, but extended also to the prevention of blindness.        

Both Anne and Helen were nurturing maternal figures; Anne filled that role for Helen, who in turn did the same for the blind and deaf. Anne’s attempts to bring liberation and light to Helen proved to be successful, as Helen came to accept her handicaps herself and even praised God for them, for through them she had found herself, her work, and her God. 

Just as Anne brought hope and light into the young Helen’s world, Helen became likewise a messenger of optimism for the blind and deaf. It is also worth remembering the elderly floor maid from the Tewksbury poorhouse mentioned earlier. When Helen had been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, she was asked by a reporter who had had the biggest impact on her life, and she answered, of course, Anne Sullivan, but she was interrupted by Anne who quickly signed into her palm that the person who had changed both their lives, was that elderly floor maid from the Tewksbury Institute. It just goes to show that the smallest act of kindness can have a lasting influence.

In much the same way that Anne and Helen in turn impacted the lives of those around them, the Helen Keller Society aims to bring hope and light into the lives of our residents and their families, as well as being a messenger of optimism for the blind and deaf in our community. And, let us always remember that history is changed when one person says: "I WILL".