Video of Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan

Wow! From Coilhouse:

Helen Keller – inspiration to generations and inspiration for an entire genre of schoolyard humor – and her teacher and friend Anne Sullivan in a clip from 1930 in which they describe the way in which Helen learned how to speak ... It’s a fascinating little clip which pays homage to a woman who, even beyond her amazing circumstances, was a radical socialist, suffragist, and supporter of birth control, who was friends with the likes of Mark Twain and who worked tirelessly to champion the rights of both the downtrodden and the physically disabled.
(Via Richard Metzger)


  1. I remember reading about this story as a child and it made a strong impression – so it’s fascinating to see the two people I imagined then. So thank you! As well as a homage to Helen Keller, I think it is as much a homage to Anne Sullivan. She must have had such patience.

  2. This is freaking awesome! I recommend picking up one of the dozen books that Keller wrote, such as her autobiography “The Story of My Life.”

  3. This is so neat to watch! Like Clare I read about Helen Keller in grade school and I’ve always thought it was such a fascinating and inspiring story. Thanks for the chance to see Hellen and Anne “in action”!

  4. What a great video. Thanks for posting it.

    It gives me pause however, considering how much work Helen did towards social justice, how she was affected by the idea that she was dumb [like an animal] if she only used sign language and not speech.

  5. Really amazing to see the resolve and patience of both Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan. Not to mention the creative teaching solutions used.

  6. Mermaid: I think the sentence “I am not dumb now” spoken by Helen Keller refers to the term used to indicate inability to use speech as a form of communication, not a statement about her mental capabilities.

  7. A few years back I was researching a presentation for my clinical psyc class about mental retardation (or intellectual disability). I was shocked to find a quote from Helen Keller basically saying the world would be better off without intellectually disabled people and that it would be prudent to let such children die in infancy. I was shocked because I knew how Helen Keller was a great advocate and activist for physically disabled people. Her quote further burnt into my mind the differences in acceptance of those mentally versus physically challenged.

    I read the quote out to my psyc class to show the stigma with which the intellectually disabled are faced. I don’t know if it had the same impact for them, as I don’t know who many of them had heard of Helen Keller. Certainly made me think differently of her.

  8. That was remarkable! I didn’t know she had the ability to easily understand anyone speaking, even if they didn’t know sign language. That, and being able to talk and be understood, nearly leveled the playing field for her.

  9. Also worth checking out, the 1962 movie “The Miracle Worker” about Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan.

    Great piece of American Gothic cinema, Patty Duke as Keller won Best Supporting Actress Oscar and Anne Bancroft as Sullivan won Best Actress Oscar.

  10. Annie Sullivan’s patience was matched my Helen’s unbelievable resolve. There’s a book on the market which contains both a eulogy of Sullivan and a eulogy by Keller of Mark Twain. It’s the Book of Eulogies by Phyllis Theroux. Highly recommended.


    The birth control movement in the US in the early part of the last century was deeply entwined with the eugenics movement. It’s disturbing that Keller felt that way but not surprising. I appreciate your use of that part of her story to help keep your students’ minds open!

  11. @5

    I think you misunderstand the use of “dumb” here. It means mute, not stupid or simple. There used to be a phrase “deaf, dumb, and blind” to describe people who couldn’t hear, speak, or see, but it’s not too common anymore.

    I was impressed when I first learned about Helen Keller and am even more impressed now. For Helen to have figured out everything she did through hand signs and spoken vibrations she must have been very smart indeed.

  12. That is wonderful and remarkable. Like WhisperDog, it had a strong emotional impact on me.

  13. Astounding tale! I know it by heart. Its significance, however, is rarely appreciated.

    Under Sullivan’s tutelage, Helen learned signs, hundreds of them. She became a very smart little ape, but she remained at the animal “sign” level until the day when suddenly and abruptly she joined the human race through recognition that “everything had a name.”

    She claims the knowledge was instantaneous. The famous water pump scene in the 1962 movie shows exactly how and when it happened. This leap forward, this ability to create and bestow meaning beyond what is perceivable through the five senses is what forever separates us from our fellow beasties. For lack of a better word let’s call it symbolling; we symbol, therefore we are human.

    This is the true Singularity.

  14. Wow! I did not know there was video of Helen Keller. I admit I’m not actually going to watch it, but it has motivated me anyways. This is definitely in the category of stuff I come to boing boing for! Er, for which I come to bb!

  15. Maybe no one else agrees–and it’s probably a sign of the times–but when it’s a film, call it a film. Not a video.

    Maybe youngsters already assume that everything ever shot was acquired in video. What’s the worst thing that happen if we used the right term–film–to help I.D. the era of the original?

    You could always compromise and call it a clip.

  16. JPW, I think the difficulty comes in that you are most certainly not watching this on film. It’s pixels. The actual thing you’re watching is, indeed, video. Perhaps video shot of a film, but it’s still video.

  17. @#16,

    You’re right; nobody cares. The medium is NOT the message, despite what that Canadian crank preached.

  18. DCulberson, of course. We’re watching it digitally. The container is video. Would you say that Ansel Adams shot digital photos when you view them online? What about all of those CDs that Elvis recorded? Or, “I really love that video Orson Welles did with the snowboard in it.”

    Capisce? . . .

    Re the Helen Keller piece: If it was shot in the era of film as a film, call it a film. Who cares how we view it? That’s irrelevant. What I’m trying to avoid is bogus, revisionist labeling by some of the current generation and future generations.

  19. Mermaid: Maybe you should review the definition of dumb.

    “The state of being dumb (either mute or dim-witted), that is, not communicating vocally, whether from selective mutism or from an inability to speak.”

    Lots of dictionaries don’t include the word vocal but that’s really what it meant, especially back then. It’s not pejorative when used this way. Now days if you called a deaf person “dumb” you’d probably be in trouble but that’s just because the meaning has changed and deaf people don’t like to think of themselves as handicapped in anyway.

  20. @ 20
    Never quote from Wikipedia unless you know how to research, you can read your own reference, and you can read the thread in which you are posting.

    The use of dumb in this context of being Deaf and “mute” is directly related to seeing them as not fully human or in your own reference “dim witted”, or did you not read #15, which is so repulsively 1865?

    Forbidden signs: American culture and the campaign against sign language
    By Douglas C. Baynton pg. 1
    “The debate over sign language, called upon the central debates of the time, such as what distinguished Americans from non-Americans,civilized people from savages, humans from animals…”

    Please become more educated before you think yourself in a position to condescend.

  21. For a few weeks each summer, a talented local cast and crew perform “The Miracle Worker” at an outdoor theater behind Ivy Green, Helen’s childhood home in Tuscumbia, Alabama. It’s well worth a visit.

    Anne Sullivan deserves enormous credit for her role in educating Helen. But the family cook’s daughter, Martha Washington, helped Helen improvise her first hand signs before Anne ever came to Ivy Green. Martha was black and Anne was white, so Martha’s contribution tends to be overlooked.

  22. Amazing! I was curious about how deaf blind folks communicate these days and found this:

    and, of course, there are now cochlear implants.

    Maybe most know about it, but the 2000 documentary Sound and Fury, which is about deaf culture, is really interesting. Before seeing it I am not sure I would ever have thought there were people who did not want an implant.

  23. @21:Mermaid:

    My post wasn’t meant to be personal but if you want to take it there feel free. It’s easier to get offended and angry, good luck with that.

    Wikipedia/wiktionary make great litumus tests. You may feel free to peruse the references if you have time. As for your book reference, it’s a debate on sign language etc. I was simply trying to clarify the meaning of the word “dumb” which in old english has nothing to do with intelligence, again, from wiktionary:

    From Old English dumb (“silent, mute, unable to speak”). Cognate with the Old Norse dumbr. In ordinary spoken English, a phrase like “He is dumb” is interpreted as “He is stupid” rather than “He lacks the power of speech”. The latter example, however, is the original sense of the word. The senses of stupid, unintellectual, and pointless were established from influence of the German word dumm.

  24. I highly recommend reading some of Helen Keller’s writing. Her vivid descriptions of colors, sights and sounds is simply amazing, knowing she has no frame of reference for what she is writing about. Her descriptive writing is so good – it is still a point of controversy on its validity.

  25. @ JPW

    It’s not so strange people call all moving pictures video since it literally means “I see.” Just like audio (“I hear”) stands for every recorded sound be it on tape, vinyl or mp3.

  26. If Helen Keller were psychic, would she call it a fourth sense?

    If her parents caught her swearing would they Wash her hands with soap?

  27. Forkboy, you make a good point. From the etymology, you’d think that ‘video’ would have been the original choice for all motion pictures.

    The way things turned out, though, we started associating ‘video’ with electronic moving images. Sure, someone can call their video a film, but it’s far less likely to shoot on film stock and call it a video.

    Technically, videotape is film (polyester film, for instance). But there again, you don’t hear people saying “Pass me that reel of film” and expect a VHS tape to appear.

    My original point stands: the Helen Keller piece from 1930 is a film. Sure, copies of it turned into a video along the way, but let’s keep things clear for future’s sake, when the era of motion pictures will refer to an ever diminishing amount of works originally shot on film.

  28. I’ve seen some horrible things (attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion, spent a Rushkoff’s age in the trenches of /b/, etc…) and thought I was immune to everything.

    This made me cry. Beautiful.

    and JPW: I’m going to take my Elvis CD’s and listen to them using my CD player and watch my VHS copy of Citizen Kane in an old JVC VCR. You can try to wrangle the semantics but ultimately you will lose because the youth out there who don’t care and get all their information streamfed straight to the dome will outlast you and me. Now get off my lawn.

    And for the record, I’m posting this anonymously because I am, in fact, a coward.


  29. #30 GIOVANNI in re., @21:Mermaid:

    Just to support your statement, let me add this from my Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary from 1933 –
    dumb (dum), adj. 1 Destitute of the power of speech; speechless. 2. Not willing to speak; mute; silent

    Regardless of how we use the term today, when Helen Keller was alive the term meant unable to speak.

  30. When I was in third grade I read Annie Sullivan’s biography…it changed my entire life, as, no other story had ever drawn me in so much and challenged me to become a better reader than that book had up to that point. Her story was just as incredible as Helen’s. I’d recommend reading about both women, together they truly were history-makers.

  31. What a brilliant woman.

    Helen Keller’s second book is striking purely as the reaction of an intelligent person to the huge social (potential) changes going on at the beginning of the 20th century – never mind someone who had to fight so hard for every sentence.

    Looks like I’d better reading up about Annie Sullivan too.


  32. First off, I’m deaf and this film isn’t captioned. Boo. Secondly, Annie Sullivan is doing all of the talking until the last few seconds, which doesn’t impress me much. Third, yes, “dumb” used to mean mute and no longer does (there used to be t-shirts saying “deaf and smart” but that’s become passe). Fourth, I agree with the use of the word film rather than calling everything video, but for me it’s more of a visual thing. Fifth, cochlear implants aren’t bionic ears– they don’t make a deaf person hearing. CIs aren’t hearing aids either. People who use CIs are still deaf, but with training and lots of practice, they can usually discriminate sounds better than most hearing aid users. Sixth, rather than her ability to talk giving her an advantage, I suggest that it’s her native intelligence partnered with her family’s wealth that gave her the advantages she had.

    And for post #6 by Mermaid, I agree that it’s unfortunate that Helen Keller thought that she needed to speak to be using a proper language, and not be “limited” by signs. While research proving that American Sign Language is as much of a language as English or French or Chinese has been around since the 1970s, the attitude that talking is better still persists in some areas. However, I don’t know if Keller’s attitude was only the result of the prevailing thought of the times, or if it was because she wasn’t part of the dynamic deaf community and therefore may not have learned to sign very well. Most of the deaf-blind people I have met or know about relate more to the deaf community than to the blind community because of language use. Keller identified with the blind community.

  33. I suggested this as a link, but in case it doesn’t make the cut, here’s a take on “The Miracle Worker” by our local-but-well-travelled community theater for the weird community, the Mickee (why ‘ee’? because we don’t want to get sued by Walt Disney, that’s why!) Faust Club (disclaimer: I am a Faustkateer). This has won some awards at disability film festivals too.

  34. Re #44, what a weird way to caption, but thanks for the link QBF! Now some of the comments above make a lot more sense.

    re: #45, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, Bloo! It is funny, but I also know of some horror stories, real ones, not too far off this– Deaf kids being punished by keeping them in the broom closet at a deaf school, for instance. It was years ago, but the friends it happened to are younger than me, so it wasn’t that far in the past.

  35. This is my 1st time to watch a ;1930; video…
    I don’t know what will be my reaction !
    And I saw that Hellen Keller laugh !
    And this is my 1st time to see the teacher of Hellen Keller !
    I don’t know why I’m interested of her :)
    Maybe because I’m really proud of her !
    I saw many people who r blind and deaf , but I cannot do anything !
    The only help I can give is the help I can !
    So many people r laughing when they saw like this situations and I’m really angry 4 them !
    But i am really proud of you Hellen Keller..

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