Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Kids and Sign Language - A Unique Perspective: Helen Keller

You may have heard of Helen Keller. She and her Teacher, Annie Sullivan, were quite famous in the early and middle parts of the twentieth century. Around 1902, Annie, aged twenty and herself partially blind, came to live with the Kellers just before Helen’s seventh birthday, to see if there was any hope of teaching Helen. At that time, Helen was more like a wild animal than a child: destructive, willful, unmanageable, and entirely unable to communicate. Within a few weeks’ time, by immersing Helen in a flood of fingerspelling, Annie penetrated Helen’s wall of ignorance and taught her that words mean things. This was the breakthrough that reopened the world to Helen.

Helen became famous for her astonishing achievements despite her challenges. She graduated from college, traveled the world with her beloved Teacher, was a friend of Presidents – and even learned to speak and to address large audiences, although she never heard her own voice.

What many people don’t know is that Helen Keller was born sighted and hearing. She was a “normal” baby until the age of approximately eighteen months. She then contracted a high fever that left her totally blind and deaf. As anyone who has been acquainted with an eighteen-month-old knows, they understand quite a lot of what they hear, and many of them are very verbal. So, by the time Helen lost her hearing she already had a good basis of language development. This undoubtedly served her well in her later endeavors.

I have what may be a unique perspective on kids and sign language. I had the privilege of performing the role of Annie Sullivan, Helen’s teacher, for more than ten years as part of an educational theatrical program. For four of those years, during the time my daughter was in third through sixth grade, she played the role of Helen with me. It was very exciting to share starring roles onstage with my own child!

My children are both sighted and hearing. I had already taught them fingerspelling and many of the formal signs, and had seen benefits in their social and linguistic development and in their school progress. However, the thing that really struck me during this remarkable time with my daughter was that sign language made possible a life of fulfillment, success and fame for Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan. Before Annie came to the Kellers, the family had regretfully discussed “putting Helen away” in an “asylum,” and had even visited a few of them. Back around 1900, asylums were horrific places, and certainly no place for a handicapped child. Annie was just graduating from the Perkins School for the Blind at the time, and had no other prospects for her own future. Annie and Helen were literally each other’s last and only chance. How differently so many lives would have turned out, if not for sign language!

Tidbit of the week: When Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, what he was really trying to invent was a hearing aid. His wife was deaf.

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