This is believed to be the earliest photograph of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan - and the only photo to show Keller holding a doll. "Doll" was the first word the teacher Sullivan taught her blind and deaf pupil.
The photo - taken on Cape Cod, Massachusetts in 1888 - was found hidden in a family photo album, just last week. It is now in the possession of the New England Historic Genealogical Society. (More about how the photo was found is here.)
Anne Sullivan, the child of impoverished Irish immigrants, was herself partially blind. Sullivan was a pioneer educator, one of the first people to recognize the potential of people with disabilities, and the value of education for all people.
In those days, disability was synonymous with idiocy. If a disabled person was lucky, she might be thought of as a "special gift" from god, and taken care of. More often, disability was something shameful, even disgusting. People with disabilities were institutionalized and forgotten, or left to fend for themselves in any way they could. Little, if any, thought was given to the human potential - or human rights - of people with disabilities. Anne Sullivan's work was an early bid to change that.
Helen Keller became an author, activist and educator. She did more than "overcome obstacles" to achieve personal success, although she did plenty of that. Keller recognized her own struggle as political, and recognized the connections between the struggles of all people. She knew that success was about more than personal strength, that it was necessary to create the conditions that make success possible, by creating a society that includes everyone.
Keller campaigned for women's suffrage, workers' rights and birth control. She was a socialist, a peace activist (most notably during World War I), a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (the "Wobblies"), and she helped to found what would become the ACLU.
She founded Helen Keller International, a non-profit organization for preventing blindness. About blindness, she said:
I was appointed on a commission to investigate the conditions of the blind. For the first time I, who had thought blindness a misfortune beyond human control, found that too much of it was traceable to wrong industrial conditions, often caused by the selfishness and greed of employers. And the social evil contributed its share. I found that poverty drove women to a life of shame that ended in blindness. [That referred to sex work, leading to syphilis, then a leading cause of blindness.]
Keller was a pioneer many times over. She remains a touchstone for women with disabilities everywhere. She is one of my heroes.
Today is International Women's Day. The rising of the women is the rising of us all!