Ask Keller - March 2005
Are you curious about some aspect of Helen Keller's life,
and haven't been able to find the answer to your question? Ask Keller
Johnson-Thompson, Helen's great-grandniece. This monthly column features
real questions from readers like you.
I was wondering if Helen Keller ever actually talked to people or if she just used American Sign Language?
Helen Keller actually never used American Sign Language because American Sign Language requires sight; however, she did communicate with people in several different ways. Many deaf or hearing impaired people talk with their fingers, using a system of manual signs, or fingerspelling. The basic system was created by Spanish monks to communicate without breaking their vow of silence. The alphabet was modified in the 1700s by Abbe Charles Michel de l'Epee in France and then brought to America by Laurent Clerc, a teacher of the deaf, where it is known as the American Manual Alphabet.
Anne Sullivan taught Helen Keller this fingerspelling method in which words are spelled into the palm of one's hand. This was Helen's primary means of communication with those around her, and she described fingerspelling in The Story of My Life, Chapter 13:
"I had better explain our use of the manual alphabet, which seems to puzzle people who do not know us. One who reads or talks to me spells with his hand, using the single-hand manual alphabet generally employed by the deaf. I place my hand on the hand of the speaker so lightly as not to impede its movements. The position of the hand is as easy to feel as it is to see. I do not feel each letter any more than you see each letter separately when you read. Constant practice makes the fingers very flexible, and some of my friends spell rapidly—about as fast as an expert writes on a typewriter. The mere spelling is, of course, no more a conscious act than it is in writing."
Helen Keller also learned to read lips. She would place her fingers very lightly on an individual's lips and her thumb on their larynx or voice box, and from the way that their lips formed words, and the vibration of their voice box, she could understand what they were saying, and therefore be a part of the conversation. You can see a video clip of Helen speaking in the Helen Keller Kids Museum Online.
Did your Aunt Helen have a good sense of humor? Can you share a funny story with me?
Helen Keller had a wonderful sense of humor. I remember, as a young girl, hearing my grandmother tell a story about Helen Keller when she visited President Dwight Eisenhower at the White House. When Helen was visiting someone for the first time, she would often ask to feel that person's face so that she could get an idea of what the person might look like. She asked permission to touch President Eisenhower's face, and of course, she was granted permission.
As her fingers glided gently over his head, Helen whispered in a soft voice, "Not much hair there." Next, her fingers felt his forehead, his eyebrows, and his eyes. Everything seemed to be going nicely until Helen Keller touched the tip of the President's nose. Nobody had bothered to tell her that the President was very ticklish on his nose, so as she felt the tip of it, the President starting laughing hysterically. Helen Keller went on to feel his lips, but by then he was laughing so hard that his mouth was opened, so she felt his teeth and tongue instead. She was so upset at touching the inside of the President's mouth that she jerked her hand away and in a deep, scratchy voice announced, "Oh Mr. President, what a big mouth you have."
Helen always seemed to make people laugh, even in awkward moments.