In a world of no sound or vision is a world where a deaf and blind person would absolutely crave for any new information. Information keeps the mind busy while prodding for more with greater and greater curiosity. With the mastery of the manual alphabet Helen was able to communicate to the outside world learning everything about it. Not only did Helen mastered the manual alphabet she also mastered Braille and eventually the English language. So much so she wrote a book using the manual typewriter (no Braille!) called "Story of My Life." You can read her book for free over the internet which includes accounts written by Miss Sullivan about Helen Keller's life as well.
She used every faculties in her body and mind to learn about the world around her. She wasn't clueless to the fact that hearing people talked and even wondered if deaf people could talk. Here is what Miss Sullivan said of that day when Helen Keller asked her about speaking.
It was three years from the time when Helen began to communicate by means of the manual alphabet that she received her first lesson in the more natural and universal medium of human intercourse--oral language. She had become very proficient in the use of the manual alphabet, which was her only means of communication with the outside world; through it she had acquired a vocabulary which enabled her to converse freely, read intelligently, and write with comparative ease and correctness. Nevertheless, the impulse to utter audible sounds was strong within her, and the constant efforts which I made to repress this instinctive tendency, which I feared in time would become unpleasant, were of no avail. I made no effort to teach her to speak, because I regarded her inability to watch the lips of others as an insurmountable obstacle. But she gradually became conscious that her way of communicating was different from that used by those around her, and one day her thoughts found expression. "How do the blind girls know what to say with their mouths? Why do you not teach me to talk like them? Do deaf children ever learn to speak?" I explained to her that some deaf children were taught to speak, but that they could see their teachers' mouths, and that that was a very great assistance to them. But she interrupted me to say she was very sure she could feel my mouth very well. Soon after this conversation, a lady came to see her and told her about the deaf and blind Norwegian child, Ragnhild Kaata, who had been taught to speak and understand what her teacher said to her by touching his lips with her fingers. She at once resolved to learn to speak, and from that day to this she has never wavered in that resolution. She began immediately to make sounds which she called speaking, and I saw the necessity of correct instruction, since her heart was set upon learning to talk; and, feeling my own incompetence to teach her, never having given the subject of articulation serious study, I went with my pupil for advice and assistance, to Miss Sarah Fuller. Miss Fuller was delighted with Helen's earnestness and enthusiasm, and at once began to teach her. In a few lessons she learned nearly all of the English sounds, and in less than a month she was able to articulate a great many words distinctly. From the first she was not content to be drilled in single sounds, but was impatient to pronounce words and sentences. The length of the word or the difficulty of the arrangement of the elements never seemed to discourage her. But, with all her eagerness and intelligence, learning to speak taxed her powers to the utmost. But there was satisfaction in seeing from day to day the evidence of growing mastery and the possibility of final success. And Helen's success has been more complete and inspiring than any of her friends expected, and the child's delight in being able to utter her thoughts in living and distinct speech is shared by all who witness her pleasure when strangers tell her that they understand her.
I have been asked a great many times whether I think Helen will ever speak naturally; that is, as other people speak. I am hardly prepared to decide that question, or even give an opinion regarding it. I believe that I have hardly begun yet to know what is possible. Teachers of the deaf often express surprise that Helen's speech is so good when she has not received any regular instruction in speech since the first few lessons given her by Miss Fuller. I can only say in reply, "This is due to habitual imitation and practice! practice! practice!" Nature has determined how the child shall learn to speak, and all we can do is to aid him in the simplest, easiest way possible, by encouraging him to observe and imitate the vibrations in the voice.
What was amazing is that Helen Keller actually taught herself to speak several words by herself before Miss Sullivan began teaching her how to speak.
She was pleased with anything which made a noise. She liked to feel the cat purr; and if by chance she felt a dog in the act of barking, she showed great pleasure. She always liked to stand by the piano when some one was playing and singing. She kept one hand on the singer's mouth, while the other rested on the piano, and she stood in this position as long as any one would sing to her, and afterward she would make a continuous sound which she called singing. The only words she had learned to pronounce with any degree of distinctness previous to March, 1890, were PAPA, MAMMA, BABY, SISTER. These words she had caught without instruction from the lips of friends. It will be seen that they contain three vowel and six consonant elements, and these formed the foundation for her first real lesson in speaking.
The thing is that Helen Keller had no prior bias or prejudice indicative of anything to suggest that speaking or talking would be a total waste of time. No one told her that. The initiative she took was entirely on her own in a world of dark silence where information of any kind is what she craved for. Her senses were so highly attuned she could even feel the vibration in Miss Sullivan's body whenever talked while signing the manual alphabet to her.
From the beginning of my education Miss Sullivan made it a practice to speak to me as she would speak to any hearing child; the only difference was that she spelled the sentences into my hand instead of speaking them. If I did not know the words and idioms necessary to express my thoughts she supplied them, even suggesting conversation when I was unable to keep up my end of the dialogue.Vibrations emanating from another person or even the purring of a cat is information that she took delight in which caused her wanting to learn more about the world around her and communicate to people who have access to the world of sight and sound. Helen Keller was voracious in learning and she strove to master the bridging of any communication gap whether its through manual alphabet, the English language, Braille, a regular manual typewriter, and finally her speaking in the effort to rid herself as a mute person.
This process was continued for several years; for the deaf child does not learn in a month, or even in two or three years, the numberless idioms and expressions used in the simplest daily intercourse. The little hearing child learns these from constant repetition and imitation. The conversation he hears in his home stimulates his mind and suggests topics and calls forth the spontaneous expression of his own thoughts. This natural exchange of ideas is denied to the deaf child. My teacher, realizing this, determined to supply the kinds of stimulus I lacked. This she did by repeating to me as far as possible, verbatim, what she heard, and by showing me how I could take part in the conversation. But it was a long time before I ventured to take the initiative, and still longer before I could find something appropriate to say at the right time.
The deaf and the blind find it very difficult to acquire the amenities of conversation. How much more this difficulty must be augmented in the case of those who are both deaf and blind! They cannot distinguish the tone of the voice or, without assistance, go up and down the gamut of tones that give significance to words; nor can they watch the expression of the speaker's face, and a look is often the very soul of what one says.
But it must not be supposed that I could really talk in this short time. I had learned only the elements of speech. Miss Fuller and Miss Sullivan could understand me, but most people would not have understood one word in a hundred. Nor is it true that, after I had learned these elements, I did the rest of the work myself. But for Miss Sullivan's genius, untiring perseverance and devotion, I could not have progressed as far as I have toward natural speech. In the first place, I laboured night and day before I could be understood even by my most intimate friends; in the second place, I needed Miss Sullivan's assistance constantly in my efforts to articulate each sound clearly and to combine all sounds in a thousand ways. Even now she calls my attention every day to mispronounced words.
All teachers of the deaf know what this means, and only they can at all appreciate the peculiar difficulties with which I had to contend. In reading my teacher's lips I was wholly dependent on my fingers: I had to use the sense of touch in catching the vibrations of the throat, the movements of the mouth and the expression of the face; and often this sense was at fault. In such cases I was forced to repeat the words or sentences, sometimes for hours, until I felt the proper ring in my own voice. My work was practice, practice, practice. Discouragement and weariness cast me down frequently; but the next moment the thought that I should soon be at home and show my loved ones what I had accomplished, spurred me on, and I eagerly looked forward to their pleasure in my achievement.
"My little sister will understand me now," was a thought stronger than all obstacles. I used to repeat ecstatically, "I am not dumb now." I could not be despondent while I anticipated the delight of talking to my mother and reading her responses from her lips. It astonished me to find how much easier it is to talk than to spell with the fingers, and I discarded the manual alphabet as a medium of communication on my part; but Miss Sullivan and a few friends still use it in speaking to me, for it is more convenient and more rapid than lip-reading.
The mastery of what Helen accomplished could be seen even in her letters from 1887 to 1901 where her written style and intelligence went from from simple and clear to elegant and thorough in thought. Many of her letters were written to Alexander Graham Bell whom she had grown to love and respect. So much so she dedicated her book to Alexander Graham Bell.
To Alexander Graham Bell
Who has taught the deaf to speak
and enabled the listening ear to hear speech
from the Atlantic to the Rockies,
this Story of My Life.
Helen Keller's life was fraught with frustration, challenges and many rewards. Even without sight and sound a deaf and blind person can still master the world around him. The story about Helen Keller is truly a testament that nothing is ever impossible when obstacles stand in our way. Nor are the choices we are given in life be seen as obstacles but challenges. It's what we make of it and what our determinations are enabling us to conquer our own limitations in life.
Now, folks, don't jump to conclusion, misread or misinterpret about my blog title or what I have written here today in conjunction with the on going AGB protest. The whole idea is that each individual has the capacity to overcome many obstacles thrown at him/her in life. How it is successfully done lies within only the human spirit and of mind. Helen Keller is the perfect example of that human spirit.