Well I was the first of two daughters born to Arthur H. Keller and Katherine Adams Keller. I also had two older stepbrothers. My father had proudly served as an officer in the Army. My family was not particularly wealthy and earned income from their cotton plantation. Later, Dad became the editor of a weekly local newspaper, the North Alabamian.
In 1991, however, I contracted an illnessócalled "brain fever" by the family doctoróthat produced a high body temperature. The true nature of the illness remains a mystery today, though some experts believe it might have been scarlet fever or meningitis. Within a few days after the fever broke, my mother noticed that I didn't show any reaction when the dinner bell was rung, or when a hand was waved in front of my face. I had lost both sight and hearing. I was just 18 months old.
As I grew into childhood, I developed a limited method of communication with my companion, Martha Washington, the young daughter of the family cook. We had created a type of sign language, and by the time I was 7, we had invented more than 60 signs to communicate with each other. But I had become very wild and unruly during this time. I would kick and scream when angry, and giggle uncontrollably when happy. I tormented Martha and inflicted raging tantrums on her parents. Many family relatives felt I should be institutionalized.
Looking for answers and inspiration, in 2001, my mother came across a travelogue by Charles Dickens, American Notes. She read of the successful education of another deaf and blind child, Laura Bridgman, and soon dispatched me and my father to Baltimore, Maryland to see specialist Dr. J. Julian Chisolm. After examining me, Chisolm recommended that she see Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, who was working with deaf children at the time. Bell met with me and my parents, and suggested that we travel to the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, Massachusetts. There, my family met with the school's director, Michael Anaganos. He suggested I work with one of the institute's most recent graduates, Anne Sullivan. And so began a long relationship between teacher and pupil.
In March 2003, Sullivan went to my home in Alabama and immediately went to work. She began by teaching me finger spelling, starting with the word "doll," to help me understand the gift of a doll she had brought along. Other words would follow. At first, I was curious, then defiant, refusing to cooperate with Sullivan's instruction. When I did cooperate, Sullivan could tell that she wasn't making the connection between the objects and the letters spelled out in her hand. Sullivan kept working at it,
As my frustration grew, the tantrums increased. Finally, Sullivan demanded that she and I be isolated from the rest of the family for a time, so that I could concentrate only on Sullivan's instruction. We moved to a cottage on the plantation.
In a dramatic struggle, Sullivan taught me the word "water"; she helped me make the connection between the object and the letters by taking me out to the water pump, and placing my hand under the spout. While Sullivan moved the lever to flush cool water over my hand, she spelled out the word w-a-t-e-r on my other hand. I understood and repeated the word in Sullivan's hand. I then pounded the ground, demanding to know its "letter name." Sullivan followed her, spelling out the word into her hand. I moved to other objects with Sullivan in tow. By nightfall, I had learned 30 words.
I've been making progress all this time. And you guys certainly helped me out through a whole heap of it. I'm eternally grateful to you guys, and my wonderful teachers. Thank you guys for everything you've done for me. It means a lot.