It is perhaps a most human instinct to lament our misfortunes, to ponder how much easier life would have been “if only.” I know that if I had a dollar for every time I wondered about my existence as a prettier, smarter, or more physically able person, I’d have far more in my bank account.
Thankfully, our history is full of examples of people for whom even extreme “disabilities” seem to be not a stumbling block, but rather a catalyst, rocketing them into lives not only of personal triump, but of true impact. People like Helen Keller.
Her story is pretty well known, at least on the surface. Born in 1880, she was struck the following year with an illness that left her blind, deaf, and mute. As a young girl she was connected with Anne Sullivan, a teacher who would re-introduce her to the world through touch and vibration. In 1908 she became the first deaf-blind person to receive a bachelor degree from Radcliffe College. She had already written her autobiography.
By any measure, Hellen Keller’s ability to learn and overcome was extraordinary. We can all be inspired by her incredible will to break barriers and soar past expectations. For most of us, that would be one hell of a life. But Helen Keller, like other Inspirers, took it to the next level.
She became an advocate.
In 1924 she became an advisor to the newly formed American Foundation for the Blind. Over the course of her 40+ years with the organization, she fundraised and spoke passionately about not only the needs of people with vision loss, but about their many abilities and their right to be treated with the dignity they deserved.
It’s hard – impossible, perhaps – to imagine life from Helen Keller’s point of view. What is it that resides in people and enables them not just to respond to the biggest challenges life has to offer, but to move beyond them entirely and devote one’s life to helping others?
It was Alexander Graham Bell who introduced her to the woman who would become her friend, teacher, and confidante, Anne Sullivan. His work would also be a spark for Keller, showing her new technologies and giving her ideas on how they could help others in the blind community. In the 1920s she persuaded a radio manufacturing company to distribute them free to the blind. Later, she lobbied for talking books to be made.
Keller’s advocacy didn’t stop with the blind; at a time when women were not expected to speak out, she became an outspoken suffragist, argued against child labor, and even served as America’s first Goodwill ambassador to Japan, where she visited in 1948 and highlighted the plight of their disabled population.
She was political, working throughout her life to affect change for the poor and disenfranchised. Even without sight or hearing, Keller knew that the privileges of her station were what allowed her to do so much, and how many weren’t provided the same opportunities. She visited poverty-stricken neighborhoods and fought against her immense fear of public speaking as she joined a lecture circuit to speak out about injustices. She used her celebrity to fight for those without a voice – a most wonderful irony from the woman who worked so hard to find her own.
It is easy to sit back and watch others take up the sword or the pen; to applaud politely but resist engaging in the movements and actions that are essential for change to occur. We can wait for the “right time” or find a million reasons why someone else will be better at the thing. And yet, only at the moment that we stand up and move into the ring can we truly declare ourselves an advocate, a participant in the struggle. That is when we begin to fulfill our promise.
May we all find the cause worth fighting for, and keep ourselves ready for the good fight to come.