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Helen Keller: Hearing Loss and Blindness

Finding inspiration from a woman who was deaf and blind

Bouton: What Would Helen Keller Do?

Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Helen Keller

"Blindness cuts us off from things, but deafness cuts us off from people," is a moving quote often attributed to the famed 20th-century activist and educator Helen Keller, who achieved a remarkable career championing the deaf and blind.

Those with serious hearing loss often cite this quote. Although cochlear implants and hearing aids restore hearing, it may be to a limited degree. Even with additional assistive devices and good lip-reading, a person with severe to profound hearing loss may still have trouble following speech in any but ideal circumstances. I know, because I'm one of them.

Nevertheless, I am certain that, given her own blindness and deafness, Helen Keller would have embraced today's cochlear implant technology. In a historical video on YouTube, Keller speaks about the loss not of sight or hearing, but of normal speech:

"It is not blindness or deafness that bring me my darkest hours. It is the acute disappointment in not being able to speak normally. Longingly I feel how much more good I might have done, if I had only acquired natural speech. But out of this sorrowful experience I understand more fully all human striving, vaunted ambitions, and the infinite capacity of hope."

Bouton: What Would Helen Keller Do?

World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Helen Keller

She also wrote in a 1910 letter: "The problems of deafness are deeper and more complex, if not more important, than those of blindness. Deafness is a much worse misfortune. For it means the loss of the most vital stimulus — the sound of the voice that brings language, sets thoughts astir and keeps us in the intellectual company of man."

Helen Keller, who was born in 1880, lost her vision and her hearing when she was 19 months old, from an infection that was probably scarlet fever or meningitis.  Like many toddlers at that age, she had some spoken language, which was presumably lost in the trauma of her illness.

Today Helen Keller's parents would be offered the option of cochlear implants and speech therapy. Because she was also blind, conventional sign language would not be an option. The deafblind, as they are called today, use a form of sign language called fingerspelling, or tactile sign language, which Keller herself used. She also learned to speak, although her speech was labored and difficult to follow.

Keller died 48 years ago this month, when she was 87. Her obituary in the New York Times cited her many accomplishments: "She was graduated from Radcliffe; she became an artful and subtle writer; she led a vigorous life; she developed into a crusading humanitarian who espoused Socialism; and she energized movements that revolutionized help for the blind and the deaf." She was a "symbol of the indomitable human spirit."

It is hard to imagine that she could have "done more good" with the ability to speak. But her quotes suggest that she would have embraced, not shunned in embarrassment, the advances in hearing technology we have made since her death just for the chance to hear "the sound of the voice that brings language, sets thoughts astir and keeps us in the intellectual company of man."

(Video) There's Something I Want You To Hear: A chat over the phone. Answers to questions. An important conversation. These are things that should never be missed. Up to 40 percent of people age 50-plus have some hearing loss — and much of the time it is left untreated.