Saturday, April 12, 2008

Helen Keller, an inspiration for the visually impaired in Australia

SIXTY years ago this month, world-famous disability advocate Helen Keller arrived in Australia as the guest of the Royal Blind Society of NSW.

Six months later, after visiting organisations, schools and hostels for the blind throughout Australia and being feted at public and private receptions in every city she visited, Keller who 34 years earlier had become the first blind and deaf person to gain a university degree shocked her hosts when she told them that services for blind Australians were substandard.

Her comments were taken to heart, however, and led to the beginning of a major shift in Australian blindness agencies away from a charitable model to one of promoting empowerment and independence.

Helen Keller had a different message for the 13-year-old boy she met at a public reception in her honour at the Sydney Town Hall on April 4, 1948.

The meeting was to have a lifetime influence on him.

Manly resident Bob Hinds recalls the meeting as if it were yesterday. "My father had been invited to the reception as a representative of St John Ambulance, and he took me along," he said.
"The ovation Helen Keller received when she entered the packed town hall was tremendous everyone wanted to meet her."

Hinds was one of the lucky ones. He said Keller spoke to him for three or four minutes. She ran her hand over his lips and nose and throat, and announced "this boy will go a long way".
"It was a great honour for me to meet her and it came at a difficult time in my life," he said.
The previous year he had been diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative condition of the retina, and was going blind.

He was still attending a mainstream school but was becomingly increasingly isolated, was continually referred to by teachers and fellow pupils alike as "the blind boy" and excluded from many mainstream activities.

He recalls having had his face pushed against the classroom blackboard because he couldn't read what the teacher had written.

Keller gave him encouragement at just the right time. When he met her, his reaction was that of a typical teenager he was amazed and inspired by the fact that a person with such disabilities could command such respect from so many important people.

"She was the only famous blind and deaf person around at the time she was a celebrity," he said.
Later, as he worked his way through the braille or large-print version of the many books written by Keller or about her, he discovered a much deeper source of inspiration.

"People with blindness are always looking for something to lead them onwards," he said. "Helen Keller brought with her a revolutionary approach to disability. In an age when she could have sat back and taken it easy, she never stopped achieving and wanting to learn."

Helen Keller was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama, on June 27, 1880. At 19 months, before she had learned to speak, she was stricken with an illness (diagnosed at the time as "brain fever") which left her deaf and blind.

She was a wild and unruly child, with little real understanding of the world around her. Learning of another blind and deaf child who was being educated, her distraught parents engaged 20-year-old Anne Sullivan, a graduate of the Perkins School for the Blind, to teach their seven-year-old.

Miss Sullivan began her daunting task with a doll she had given Helen. By spelling the word "doll" into the child's hand, she hoped to teach her to connect objects with letters. It took Helen two days to learn to form the letters correctly, but she was still to grasp the concept that all objects had names, and that these could be communicated by touch.

This realisation came to her when Sullivan placed the child's hand under the spout of an outdoor pump at her home.

Keller later recounted the incident: "As the cool stream gushed over one hand, she spelled into the other the word 'water'. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten, a thrill of returning thought, and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me."

From that point, her learning proceeded rapidly, as she mastered the alphabet, both manual and in raised print, and reading and writing. At 10 she began the difficult task of learning to speak, using her fingers to examine the vibrations of the larynx, lips and nose of her teacher as she spoke, and striving to imitate those vibrations with her voice. Her formal schooling ended in 1904 when she graduated from Radcliffe College at Harvard University as a bachelor of arts "cum laude" the first blind and deaf person to gain a degree.

Her writing career, which began in 1903 when her autobiography, The Story of My Life, appeared in book form, continued on and off for 50 years. However, she never lost sight of the needs of other blind and deaf-blind people, campaigning for legislative changes, giving lectures and writing articles and showing by example what could be accomplished.

Her efforts acquired a national outlet in 1921 with the formation of the American Foundation for the Blind, and it was as this body's counsellor for international relations that she visited Australia in 1948 on one of a series of trips that took her to 35 countries in seven years. Keller died in June, 1988, aged 87.

At her memorial service, Senator Lister Hill from Alabama said in his eulogy: "She will live on, one of the few, the immortal names not born to die. Her spirit will endure as long as man can read and stories can be told of the woman who showed the world there are no boundaries to courage and faith."

On the desk in the office of Bob Hinds' apartment on Manly's eastern hill sits a photograph of Helen Keller, who, when his world was crumbling, gave him the courage to go on and continued to inspire him. Beside the photo is one of his more recent acquisitions a scanning and reading device which, at the touch of a button, reads aloud the text of printed material scanned into the machine. It all seems light years removed from those dark days when the blind boy was given the will to "have a go" through a fleeting encounter with someone who had it tougher than him.

Hinds has been a remarkable achiever in his own right. At a time when basket-weaving and switchboard operator were about the only occupations available to the visually impaired, he completed a technical college course in french polishing and got a job in the NSW Education Department workshops.

In a career spanning 40 years, he worked in various capacities in several departments. His last appointment before retirement was a PR job with Public Works.

His voluntary work on behalf of the visually impaired and others with disabilities has been acknowledged with several community service awards.

As well as being convener of the Manly group for Vision Australia (the former Royal Blind Society of NSW), he has been chairman of the Manly Access Committee for many years. His current project is to persuade Manly Council to establish a "scented garden" of Australian native plants in Ivanhoe Park for the benefit of visually impaired people.

It would have had the full support of Keller, whose highly developed sense of smell helped form the many impressions of Australia she took home with her the "fragrances of the bush" which she later wrote about with great nostalgia.


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