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Inspirational Educators: Anne Sullivan

Updated: Jun 18, 2021

Remember learning about Helen Keller, the first deaf-blind person to graduate college, back when you were in primary school? Haven't we all given a presentation about her life, tried writing in Braille and worn a blindfold and headphones to understand how she experienced the world?

Helen Keller & Anne Sullivan

But have you ever wondered who actually taught her how to communicate in the first place? As well as overcoming her own disability, Anne Sullivan completely transformed Helen Keller's life and the lives of other deaf-blind people all over the world. So who was she?


Born to a poor immigrant family in Massachusetts in 1866, Anne didn't have an easy childhood. Aged 5 she contracted Trachoma, a bacterial eye infection, which left her almost completely blind. Her mother died when she was 8, leaving her and her siblings to be raised by their abusive father. He soon abandoned them and they were sent to a rundown, overcrowded home for the poor called Tewksbury Almshouse where the conditions were so bad her younger brother died within a few months of arriving. Determined to change her circumstances and after hearing about special schools for blind children, she decided education was the only way out.

Perkins School for the Blind, 1912

In 1880 she left Tewksbury to attend the Perkins School for the Blind, where she spent the rest of her childhood. But her time at the school was not easy. Most of the other girls were the daughters of wealthy merchants and tradesmen, and they often teased her for her rough manners, illiteracy and poor upbringing. This motivated Anne to work even harder; her anger and shame fuelled her determination until she ended up graduating as Valedictorian.


Ironically though, Anne was suffering from the classic graduation problem - she didn't have a clue what she wanted to do after school and she was terrified of ending up back in a home like Tewksbury. However, her luck changed in 1887 when she was hired as a governess for the Keller family. Anne was only 20 at the time and had to adapt quickly to the situation, as Helen Keller was by no means an easy student. Stubborn and spoilt, she refused to sit through formal lessons so Anne was forced to change tack and get a bit more creative. Her first major breakthrough came when she finger-spelled the sign for water into Helen's palm whilst pouring water on the other. The concept of connecting signs to the objects around her finally clicked.

Within 6 months Helen had learnt almost 600 signed words as well as how to read Braille. In 1900 she enrolled in Radcliffe College and, with the help of Anne transcribing lectures and textbooks into her palm, became the first deaf-blind person to graduate from college.


By this point Anne was much more than just a teacher for Helen - they were best friends who remained inseparable for the rest of Anne's life, with Helen even moving in with her and her husband. Anne eventually died in 1936 and her ashes were placed in the National Cathedral in Washington D.C., alongside those of former US President Woodrow Wilson and other distinguished individuals.


Many schools for children with disabilities, including Perkins, have now based their programs around Anne's child-centred methods, and her work has been adapted into a film called The Miracle Worker. She continues to inspire teachers and students with SEN all across the globe.


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Written by Amena Boyd, June 2021

References:

https://www.perkins.org/history/people/anne-sullivan

https://www.biography.com/activist/anne-sullivan

https://myhero.com/A_Sullivan_dnhs_US_2011_ul#:~:text=AnneSullivan is inspirational to,that it had to offer.



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