An ASL Dictionary

Signing Savvy is a sign language dictionary containing several thousand high resolution videos of American Sign Language (ASL) signs, fingerspelled words, and other common signs used within the United States and Canada.

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Signing Savvy is an ideal resource to use while you learn sign language. It includes the ability to view large sign videos, build your own word lists and share them with others, create virtual flash cards and quizzes, print signs, build sign phrases, ...and more

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Blog Articles by: Jillian Winn

Deaf American Jazz Singer and Songwriter Chooses to “Try” After Hearing Loss

Deaf Culture   |  Saturday, June 10, 2017

By Jillian Winn

Mandy Harvey starting singing when she was four. She sang in choral groups and music competitions in high school and she was recognized as the "Top Female Vocalist" at Longmont High School when she graduated in 2006. Mandy was then one of only fifteen students accepted as a vocal major into Colorado State University. However, Mandy suffered from reoccurring hearing problems and during her freshman year in college she lost hearing (110 decibels) in both ears. Doctors believe her hearing loss was caused by a genetic connective tissue disorder exacerbated by medications used during knee surgeries.

After her hearing loss, Mandy was discouraged and left Colorado State University to take a break from singing and return home to Longmont, Colorado. She started taking classes at the local community college in American Sign Language and Elementary Education. Although she stopped singing, she continued to play the guitar with her father. Encouraged by her father, she began to work on learning the lyrics to "Come Home" by OneRepublic. She discovered she was able to read the music and sing in key, which motivated her to not give up on signing.

A visit with one of her former college music professors in 2008 also helped revive her music passion and got her connected to the jazz scene at Jay’s Bistro in Fort Collins and she began performing there regularly for several years. She then began having regular concerts at the Dazzle Jazz Lounge in Denver (one of the top 100 Jazz venues in the world). In 2011, Mandy won the VSA’s International Young Soloist Award and has performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. several times.

Mandy is an ambassador with the non-profit No Barriers, an organization that helps individuals with disabilities and wounded veterans overcome the obstacles they face in their day to day lives. She wrote the song Try because "After I lost my hearing, I gave up. But I want to do more with my life than just give up.” Watch this video of Mandy auditioning for the T.V. show America’s Got Talent and singing her song Try.

Video Transcript

Note: Captions are available on the video (click the CC button), but they aren’t entirely accurate. For example, they say "death" instead of "deaf" and "beach" instead of "beat." We are unable to change the captions since the video was published by American’s Got Talent, but we have contacted them with this feedback and included a transcript of the video below.

COWELL: Hello.

HARVEY: Hi! How are you?

COWELL: And what’s your name?

HARVEY: Mandy Harvey

COWELL: And who’s this?

HARVEY: My Interpreter

COWELL: What’s your name?

SARAH: Sarah

COWELL: Nice to meet you Sarah.

SARAH: Nice to meet you sir, doing well thank you.

KLUM: Hi Sarah.

SARAH: Hello.

COWELL: Ok Mandy, so I think I’ve worked this out. So you’re deaf?

HARVEY: Yes, I lost all my hearing when I was 18 years old.

COWELL: Wow, and how old are you now?

HARVEY: 29, so it’s 10 years.

COWELL: Wow

COWELL: And Mandy, how did you lose your hearing, if you don’t mind me asking?

HARVEY: I have a connective tissue disorder, so basically I got sick and my nerves deteriorated.

COWELL: So you were signing before you lost your hearing?

HARVEY: Yeah, I’ve been singing since I was 4. So I left music after I lost my hearing and then figured out how to get back into singing with muscle memory, using visual tuners, and trusting my pitch.

MANDEL: So your shoes are off because you are feeling the vibration. Is that how you’re following the music?

HARVEY: Yeah, I’m feeling the tempo, the beat, through the floor.

COWELL: And Mandy, what are you going to sing?

HARVEY: I’m going to sing a song I wrote called Try.

COWELL: Okay, can you tell me what it’s about?

HARVEY: After I lost my hearing, I gave up. But I want to do more with my life than just give up.

COWELL: Good for you.

HARVEY: Thank you.

COWELL: Good for you. Well look, this is your moment, and good luck.

HARVEY: Ok

[Clapping]

[Music]

Mandy Harvey singing:

I don’t feel the way I used to
The sky is grey much more than it is blue
But I know one day I'll get through
And I'll take my place again

If I would try, if I would try

There is no one for me to blame
cause I know the only thing in my way
Is Me

I don't live the way I want to
That whole picture never came into view
But I'm tired of getting used to
The day

So I will try, so I will try,

If I would try, if I would try

[Clapping]

COWELL: Mandy, I don’t think you’re going to need a translator for this…

[Cheering, Clapping]

BROWN: Wow

COWELL: Hey, you sing incredible. I mean, I’ve done this a long time, that was one of the most amazing things that I’ve ever seen and heard.

HARVEY: Thank you so much.

COWELL: That was amazing. Amazing.

MR. HARVEY: Thank you.

COWELL: Congratulations.

COWELL: Honestly, I never think I’m going to be surprised or amazed by people, and then you turn up. I mean, just the fact that you are you, but it was your voice, your tone. The song was beautiful. Congratulations you are straight through to the live show.

COWELL: Mandy, you know what, we found each other.

HARVEY: Yes.

[Music]

[Applause]

Bravo Mandy! We’re glad you decided to "Try," so we could see your love and passion for music!

Resources

  1. America’s Got Talent. (2017, June 6). Mandy Harvey: Deaf Singer Earns Simon's Golden Buzzer With Original Song - America's Got Talent 2017. Retrieved 6/9/2017 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZKSWXzAnVe0
  2. Mandy Harvey. (n.d.) Wikipedia. Retrieved 6/9/2017 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandy_Harvey
  3. No Barriers. (n.d.). Mandy Harvey. Retrieved 6/9/2017 from http://www.nobarriersusa.org/people/mandy-harvey/

 

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The Importance of Early Exposure to American Sign Language with Deaf Children

Learning Tips   |  Thursday, November 3, 2016

By Jillian Winn

Around 8,000 children are born deaf or hard of hearing each year in the United States.1 95% of those children are born into hearing families.18 This means a few things – the majority of hard of hearing children are born into families that do not use sign language and their parents do not have previous experience with raising and educating a deaf child. The options and information may be overwhelming for parents, but just like raising any child, each child and family is different and there isn’t a “one size fits all” plan to execute. Luckily there is research to help serve as a guide.

The Gift of Language

The greatest gift you can give to a child is language. Children need language.1, 27 Babies are capable of learning any language, and multiple languages, from birth.6, 13

The key is early exposure and full access to a natural language.10 A natural language is a language that has developed naturally through use and includes all of the linguistic levels – phonology, morphology, lexicon, syntax, and discourse. English and American Sign Language (ASL) are both full, natural languages.

Our brains are built to process language the same, whether it is signed or spoken.1, 22 So it doesn’t matter if a child has access to early spoken language or early sign language, it matters more that they have full access to language (the ability to receive communication input). For some children, this will mean English, for some this will mean American Sign Language, and for others it may mean both.

Taking Advantage of the “Critical Period”

Some researchers believe a “critical period” exists for language acquisition. The hypothesis is that during this period, it is much easier to learn languages and if exposure to language begins after this period, then it may be impossible to become fluent in that language. At birth, babies have the ability to learn any language, but around 8-10 months, they lose their ability to discriminate sounds in other languages (sounds not relevant to the baby’s own language).13, 14 The critical period extends through infancy and different researchers believe this critical period ends at different points between 5 years old and puberty.15 Many professionals who work with deaf children assume that there is a critical period for spoken language, but not sign language, but research shows that is simply not true.8 The critical period extends to all language learning, including sign language.

There are many advantages to early language learning.

  • Early first language acquisition contributes to native-like fluency as an adult.16
  • Early first language acquisition supports more effective second language learning. 16

On the other hand, there are several negative effects to late language exposure.

  • A lack of early first language acquisition impairs the ability to learn language throughout life and decreases language proficiency for any language in adulthood. 16
  • Late exposure to language effects linguistic processing and cognitive development.19
  • Late language development can delay cognitive reasoning, such as the Theory of Mind, which allows children to distinguish between what they know and what others know, to understand others may think differently than themselves, and to have the ability to guess other’s actions.20, 34
  • If input is delayed by as little as 4-6 years, long-lasting effects can be observed in language production, comprehension, and processing.21

There are several reasons why early exposure is critical to language acquisition. Children simply have more time to learn language when they are exposed earlier in life, and have a less stressful learning environment with less distractions where they can practice.

  • Babies benefit from learning language through “motherese,” when learning either sign or speech. Motherese, also called child-directed signing or speech (CDS), is modified speaking or signing directed for the baby. In speech, motherese includes using a higher pitch and exaggerated stress and intonation patterns. When signing or speaking, motherese includes shorter statements, frequent repetitions, and frequent directives.19
  • Another important aspect of motherese in signing is the use of eye gaze and joint attention to make sure the baby understands what you are talking about (by looking at the subject) and that you are in their line of sight and they can see you when you are signing. These techniques help children learn language and also important attention and turn-based lessons. When children are in school, the classroom can be a distracting environment and a teacher or interpreter is often signing to many children and cannot provide one-on-one attention to help with language acquisition.19
  • Babies are able to “practice” language in the form of babbling. At first English babbling is just playing with making sounds and over time those sounds become more English-like and eventually they begin to say their first words. ASL babbling lets babies practice playing with handshapes, location, and movement until they begin to produce their first signs.19
  • Babies have the time to leisurely learn language before having additional pressures, such as needing to produce language on demand, or the expectation that they are learning new content and curriculum, not just language acquisition.19

The important take away to learn from the “critical period” hypothesis, is that early access to language is important. However, other researchers prefer to call this period the “optimal period” or “sensitive period”8 because, although perhaps less efficiently, language learning still occurs after this period.16 If you have already missed this period, you should not be discouraged to start language acquisition. Late detection of hearing loss is one of the biggest barriers to early language acquisition. Late language exposed signers can still become strong signers with great signing skills. Where researchers find the biggest difference between early and late learners is when they are under stress, like when they have to recall information quickly and when taking a test. Now is always a good time to start learning language.

Advantages of Sign Language Use

Babies and young children don’t learn language by simply copying adults, explicit instruction, or training. They learn language by building a system of grammar based on the input they receive, which is why it is critical they have full access to communication input.

In order to have full access to a language, the child must have the ability to receive the communication input. Since children who are hard of hearing have trouble hearing spoken language, they are often not able to fully access it as a communication input. American Sign Language is the language of the deaf and is a fully accessible language that does not require hearing for input.

Babies are born interested in and looking for language, and not just speech, but spoken or signed language. This indicates babies are equally interested and able to learn either spoken or signed language. They are able to detect patterns in visual language, even with no previous language exposure. They also seem to recognize the same kind of structured patterns found in spoken language in ASL and prefer ASL (a full, natural language) over non-linguistic pantomime gesturing.13

Research has found many advantages to learning sign language, including:

  • Early first language learning helps facilitate, and may even be necessary, for learning a second language later in life.19
  • Early exposed signers have better academic performance compared to late exposed deaf in a variety of areas,33 including better performance on:
    • tests of English syntax25, 33
    • reading tasks5, 32
    • written language tasks31
    • vocabulary26
    • overall academic achievement17, 29
  • Even moderate fluency in ASL benefits English literacy for Deaf children.30
  • Kids who understand more sign language, understand more English.35
  • Kids who produce more sign language, produce more English.35
  • Strong adult signers have better ASL narrative comprehension, and also higher English reading scores.7
  • The experience of “speaking” two languages (like ASL and English) on a regular basis has broad implications for cognitive ability, enhancing executive control functions and protecting the brain across the life span.2, 9, 11
  • Bilingualism may protect against age-related cognitive decline.4 With all else being equal, one study found the age of dementia onset for bilinguals was 4 years later than it was for monolinguals.3

Common Concerns – As hearing parents, we don’t know ASL well.

Some hearing parents may be concerned their own signing skills are not good enough to model as a communication input for their children. Learning ASL and using it with your child is a great way to communicate with them, increase bonding, and help them learn ASL, but there are several factors involved.

  • The deaf students who perform best academically usually are the ones whose parents have effectively communicated with them from an early age.12
  • It was found children are able to surpass the level of their input - so parents’ ASL may be grammatically inconsistent, but the child is still able to regularize inconsistent input and produce ASL that is more native-like than their parents’ signing.28
  • Children are shaped by more than just their parents. The culture and peer groups children are exposed to play an important role.24 So finding playgroups or preschools where they can interact with other hard of hearing peers is helpful.
  • Being exposed to a diverse set of signers, of different ages and abilities, is also helpful. Anyone from siblings, extended family members, friends, peers, and community members help shape the child’s learning environment and language acquisition, and help them to practice both receptive and expressive signing skills.

Common Concerns – Is it too difficult for young children to learn two languages (English and ASL) at once? Maybe we should just focus on one language to start.

There is a misconceived fear that teaching babies more than one language too early may cause language delays or language confusion or that the child may never be as competent in either of the languages as a monolingual child is in one. In fact, research shows babies know that they are acquiring two distinct languages and are able to learn them without language delay or language confusion. Bilingual babies are able to reach the classic language milestones on a similar timetable as monolingual babies, such as when they say their first word, when they can say their first fifty words, and when they say their first two-word combinations. There are a few differences though. For example, when counting the child’s first fifty words, the tally would come from a total of words produced in both languages. Young children may also show a language preference and use one of their languages more, however, this is not a delay in language learning, it simply shows a preference, which could change over time, and is often related to the child’s primary sociolinguistic group (for example, the language used by peer groups in school, or if one parent is home all day using one language with a baby, it will often be preferred over a second language that is used when the rest of the family is home only at night). It doesn’t make sense to take away any language to focus on just one. Early exposure of both languages is what is best for the child and will help the child to reach fullest mastery in each of the languages.23

Conclusion

The key to learning language and becoming fluent is early exposure and full access to a natural language.10 Babies are capable of learning any language, and multiple languages, from birth.6, 13 Research shows there are many benefits to learning ASL, and the sooner you can start, the better. There are both linguistic and cognitive advantages to being bilingual. Learning both ASL and English from an early age will help the child to reach fluency in both languages. The best time to start learning language is now.

Sources:

  1. Bavelier, D., Newport, E.L., & Supalla, T. (2003, January 01). Children Need Natural Languages, Signed or Spoken. The Dana Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.dana.org/Cerebrum/Default.aspx?id=39306
  2. Bialystok, E., & Craik, F.I.M. (2010). Cognitive and Linguistic Processing in the Bilingual Mind. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19(1), 19-23.
  3. Bialystok, E., Craik, F.I.M., & Freedman, M. (2007). Bilingualism as a protection against the onset of symptoms of dementia. Neuropsychologia, 45, 459-464.
  4. Bialystok, E., Craik, F.I.M., Klein, R., & Viswanathan, M. (2004). Bilingualism, aging, and cognitive control: Evidence from the Simon task. Psychology and Aging, 19, 290-303.
  5. Brasel, K. & Quigley, S. (1977, March). Influence of Certain Language and Communication Environments in Early Childhood on the Development of Language in Deaf Individuals. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 20, 95-107.
  6. Brentari, D. (Ed.). (2010). Sign languages. Cambridge University Press.
  7. Chamberlain, C., & Mayberry, R. (2008, July 1). American Sign Language syntactic and narrative comprehension in skilled and less skilled readers: Bilingual and bimodal evidence for the linguistic basis of reading. Applied Psycholinguistics, 29(3), 367-388.
  8. Chen Pichler, D. (2016, Fall). Why sign with deaf babies?  [Video Lecture]. Gallaudet University: PST 375 Language Learning by Eye or by Ear.
  9. Chen Pichler, D. (2016, Fall). Bilingualism: Unimodal and Bimodal [Video Lecture]. Gallaudet University: PST 375 Language Learning by Eye or by Ear.
  10. Davidson, L.S., Geers, A.E., & Nicholas, J.G. (2014, July). The effects of audibility and novel word learning ability on vocabulary level in children with cochlear implants. Cochlear Implants Int., 15(4), 211-221.
  11. De Houwer, A. (2009). An introduction to bilingual development. Tonawanda, New York: Multilingual Matters.
  12. Deaf Education: A new philosophy. Research findings at NTID. Retrieved 10-10-2016 from https://www.rit.edu/showcase/index.php?id=86
  13. Krentz, U.C., & Corina, D.P. (2008, January). Preference for language in early infancy: the human language bias is not speech specific. Developmental Science, 11(1), 1-9.
  14. Kuhl, P. (2010, October). Patricia Kuhl: The linguistic genius of babies [Video file]. TED. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/patricia_kuhl_the_linguistic_genius_of_babies
  15. Lenneberg, E.H. (1967). Biological Foundations of Language. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  16. Mayberry, R.I. (2010). Early language acquisition and adult language ability: What sign language reveals about the critical period for language. In Marschark, M. & P.E. Spencer (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Deaf Studies, Language, and Education Volume 2 (pp. 281-291). New York: Oxford University Press.
  17. Meadow, K. (1966). The effects of early manual communication and family climate on the deaf child’s early development. Doctoral dissertation, University of California, Berkeley.
  18. Mitchell, R.E., & Karchmer, M.A. (2004, Winter). Chasing the Mythical Ten Percent: Parental Hearing Status of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students in the United States. Sign Language Studies, 4(2), 138-163.
  19. Morford, J.P., & Mayberry, R.I. (2000). A reexamination of “Early Exposure” and its implications for language acquisition by eye. In Chamberlain, C., Morford, J.P., & R.I. Mayberry (Eds.), Language acquisition by eye (pp. 110-127). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.
  20. Morgan, G. & Kegl, J. (2006, August). Nicaraguan Sign Language and Theory of Mind: the issue of critical periods and abilities. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 47(8), 811-819.
  21. Newport, E. L., & Supalla, T. (1980). The structuring of language: Clues from the acquisition of signed and spoken language. Signed and spoken language: Biological constraints on linguistic form. Weinheim/Deerfield Beach, FL/Basel: Dahlem Konferenzen. Verlag Chemie.
  22. Orfanidou, E., Adam, R., Morgan, G., & McQueen, J. M. (2010). Recognition of signed and spoken language: Different sensory inputs, the same segmentation procedure. Journal of Memory and Language, 62(3), 272-283.
  23. Petitto, L. A., & Holowka, S. (2002). Evaluating attributions of delay and confusion in young bilinguals: Special insights from infants acquiring a signed and a spoken language. Sign Language Studies, 3(1), 4-33.
  24. Pinker, S. (2003, February). Steven Pinker: Human Nature and the blank slate [Video file]. TED. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/steven_pinker_chalks_it_up_to_the_blank_slate
  25. Quigley, S. P., Montanelli, D. S., & Wilbur, R. B. (1976). Some aspects of the verb system in the language of deaf students. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research, 19 (3), 536-550.
  26. Quigley, S. P., & Frisina, D. R. (1961). Institutionalization and psycho-educational development of deaf children. Council for Exceptional Children.
  27. Schick, B., de Villiers, J., de Villiers, P., & Hoffmeister, B. (2002). Theory of mind: Language and cognition in deaf children. The ASHA Leader, 22, 6-7.
  28. Singleton, J. L., & Newport, E. L. (2004). When learners surpass their models: The acquisition of American Sign Language from inconsistent input. Cognitive psychology, 49(4), 370-407.
  29. Stevenson, E. (1964). A study of the educational achievement of deaf children of deaf parents. California News, 80(14.3).
  30. Strong, M., & Prinz, P. M. (1997). A study of the relationship between American Sign Language and English literacy. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 2(1), 37-46.
  31. Stuckless, E. R., & Birch, J. W. (1966). The influence of early manual communication on the linguistic development of deaf children: I. American Annals of the Deaf.
  32. Vernon, M., & Koh, S. (1970). Early manual communication and deaf children's achievement. American Annals of the Deaf, 115(5), 527-36.
  33. Wilbur, R. B. (2000). The use of ASL to support the development of English and literacy. Journal of deaf studies and deaf education, 5(1), 81-104.
  34. Woolfe, T., Want, S. C., & Siegal, M. (2002). Signposts to development: Theory of mind in deaf children. Child development, 73(3), 768-778.
  35. Woolfe, T., Herman, R., Roy, P., & Woll, B. (2010). Early vocabulary development in deaf native signers: A British Sign Language adaptation of the communicative development inventories. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 51(3), 322-331.

 

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Practice American Sign Language (ASL) With an ASL Expert Through Video Chat

Practice American Sign Language (ASL) With an ASL Expert Through Video Chat

Site News   |  Monday, September 19, 2016

By Jillian Winn

We’re excited to announce that we are launching a new service where you can practice American Sign Language (ASL) with an ASL expert through video chat. We are calling this new service Savvy Chat. All chats are one-on-one 30 minute sessions using video conferencing software online. You can practice your receptive and expressive ASL skills and/or get help with a specific aspect of ASL. 
To use Savvy Chat, you will need a webcam, high speed internet, and a device that will allow you to download and install the Zoom video conferencing software (you can use a Windows or Mac OS X computer, iPhone, or Android device). 
We are starting with a limited number of spots for roll out of Savvy Chat to see if there is interest in this service.

Schedule a time for a Savvy Chat before they all fill up!

If a lot of people are interested in Savvy Chat, we will add more availability in the future.

 

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Deaf Awareness Week 2016

Deaf Culture   |  Sunday, September 18, 2016

By Jillian Winn

Deaf Awareness Week this year is September 19-25, 2016. Deaf Awareness Week, also called International Week of the Deaf (IWD), is celebrated annually and ends with International Day of the Deaf on the last Sunday of September. Deaf Awareness Week is celebrated by national and regional associations of the deaf, local communities, and individuals worldwide.

The purpose of Deaf Awareness Week is to increase public awareness of deaf issues, people, and culture.  Activities and events throughout Deaf Awareness Week encourage individuals to come together as a community for both educational events and celebrations. Find more information on Deaf Awareness Week.

2016 Theme: With sign language, I am equal

Since 2009, the World Federation of the Deaf has created themes for International Week of the Deaf. The theme for 2016 is “With Sign Language, I am Equal.” Find out more about the 2016 International Week of the Deaf on the World Federation of the Deaf website and download their campaign materials.

You can also spread the message using the hashtags: #InternationalWeekOftheDeaf2016 #WithSignLanguageIAmEqual #IWD2016

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12 Facts You Probably Don’t Know About Helen Keller

Deaf Culture   |  Monday, June 27, 2016

By Jillian Winn

Helen Keller became deaf and blind at 19 months old. She was famous from the age of 8 for her experience of overcoming great obstacles in order to learn to communicate. This early part of her life is the most well-known, but the story doesn’t end there. Helen would go on to become not only well educated, but famous in her own right as an author and activist. She has even been said to be one of the 20th century's leading humanitarians and was named one of the most important people of the 20th century by Life magazine.

Here are 12 facts you probably don’t know about Helen Keller.

#1 Her famous life story was based on the autobiography she wrote.

Helen Keller with Anne SullivanHelen Keller at 8 years old with her teacher Anne Sullivan while on vacation in Brewster, Cape Cod, Massachusetts in July 1888. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons. New England Historic Genealogical Society.)

Helen Keller’s early life was made famous through the well-known story The Miracle Worker, which was made into a Broadway play (1959-1961; 1994; 2010), television drama (1957; 1979; 2000), and film (1962). It was even adapted for Spanish (TVE, 1978) and Italian (RAI, 1968) television.

The Miracle Worker tells the story of Keller’s breakthrough in understanding the connection between words, language, and the world around her. Many people don’t realize The Miracle Worker story is based on Keller’s first book, the autobiography “The Story of My Life,” which was published in 1903 when she was just 24 and went on to become a renowned classic, translated into 50 languages.

#2 She thought of herself as an author first.

Although she accomplished many things, Keller saw herself as a writer first – her passport listed her profession as "author."

She used both a braille and regular typewriter - she used a braille typewriter to prepare her manuscripts and then copied them on a regular typewriter.

She published fourteen books, many articles and essays, and was a frequent contributor to magazines and newspapers. The Helen Keller Archives contain over 475 speeches and essays that she wrote on topics such as faith, blindness prevention, birth control, the rise of fascism in Europe, and atomic energy.

#3 She was an Oscar winner and her life inspired two Oscar-winning movies.

Helen Keller with her Academy AwardHelen Keller holding her Academy Award for "Helen Keller in Her Story," awarded for Best Documentary Feature in 1956. (Photo Credit: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences)

Helen Keller won an Oscar for Best Documentary in 1956 for the story of her life Helen Keller in Her Story (also known as The Unconquered). She accepted the Academy Award at the age of 75. Keller is the only person to win an Academy Award for appearing in a documentary about her life and also have someone else win an Oscar for portraying her in another movie about her life.

The Miracle Worker story won many awards. The 1962 film won Academy Awards for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. Patty Duke, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, is the only actress to win an Oscar for a role in which only one word is said (she says, “Water!” in the famous scene in the movie when Keller understands that what she is touching at the pump is called water). The original 1959 The Miracle Worker play ran for 719 performances and won the 1960 Tony Award for Best Play, in addition to Best Direction, Best Stage Technician, and Best Actress.

#4 She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor that an American civilian can receive.

In addition to Oscars and Tonys being awarded for adaptations to her life story The Miracle Worker, Helen Keller received many awards during her lifetime. She received the Theodore Roosevelt Distinguished Service Medal in 1936 and in 1964 was awarded the highest honor that an American civilian can receive, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She later received Brazilian Order of the Southern Cross (1952), the Philippines' Golden Heart, the French Legion of Honor (1952) and Japan's Sacred Treasure. She was elected to the Women's Hall of Fame at the New York World’s Fair in 1965, the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame in 1971, and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1973. A U.S. Stamp with a picture of Keller and Sullivan was issued in 1980. Other countries have issued stamps with her image as well, including Spain, India, Liberia, Nicaragua, Republic of Maldives, Mauritius, Brazil, and Japan.

#5 She was well-educated and the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree.

Helen Keller's graduation from Radcliffe College.Helen Keller's graduation from Radcliffe College in 1904. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.)

Helen Keller graduated cum laude from Radcliffe College (Harvard’s Women’s College) in 1904 at the age of 24. She was the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. She also learned to read French, German, Greek, and Latin in braille!

In June 1955, Helen was the first woman to be awarded an honorary degree from Harvard University. She also received honorary degrees from Temple University in Pennsylvania, Glasgow University in Scotland; Delhi University in India; Berlin University in Germany; and Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, South Africa.

#6 She performed on the Vaudeville circuit as a speaker.

Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan in Vaudeville costumes.Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan in sequined vaudeville costumes around 1920. (Photo Credit: American Foundation for the Blind)

Keller was offered a chance to join Vaudeville as a teenager (Vaudeville is a genre of entertainment featuring specialty acts and the Vaudeville circuit included many venues across the U.S.), but turned down the opportunity because her family and her teacher Anne Sullivan didn’t think it was a good idea. Keller eventually convinced Sullivan. Keller performed on the Vaudeville circuit from 1920 to 1924 as a lecturer with Anne Sullivan.

The public was intrigued by Keller and wanted to see for themselves if she could do all of the things she was credited for – most deaf-blind people during this time were institutionalized and assumed to be “retarded,” rumors also circulated that Keller plagiarized, that her books were written by ghost authors, and that her teacher Anne Sullivan and her husband used Keller to spread their own views. Keller wanted the opportunity to re-tell her story the way she wanted it told, to be an advocate, and to educate others on the struggles of the deaf-blind.

Keller was billed as “The Star of Happiness” and her show was a success. The audience was surprised to hear her speak and the most popular part of the show was the Q & A at the end, where Keller got to showcase her quick wit and push her political views. When asked if talking tires her, Keller responded, “Did you ever hear a woman who tired of talking?”

#7 She was a world traveler and visited a total of 39 countries across 5 continents.

Helen Keller in JapanHelen Keller greeting crowds excited to see her in Japan. (Photo Credit: Encyclopedia of Alabama)

Helen was a world traveler and visited a total of 39 countries across 5 continents. She was an activist for both the American Federation for the Blind and Helen Keller International (which she helped to found), and spent much of her later years traveling around the world, raising money and awareness for the blind and other social issues.

She didn’t slow down. In 1955, when she was 75 years old, she embarked on one of her longest and most grueling journeys - a 40,000-mile, five-month-long tour through Asia.

#8 She was a dog lover and was the first to bring the Japanese Akita dog breed to America.

She loved dogs and had dogs throughout her life.

She introduced the Japanese Akita breed to America after receiving her first Akita dog, which was a gift from police officer Ichiro Ogasawara during one of her trips to Japan.

#9 She had a love affair with one of her assistants.

An interesting story that is not included in many biographies about Helen Keller is she had a love affair in 1916 at the age of 36. Anne Sullivan and Keller worked closely together and lived together, however, Sullivan was away seeking treatment and recuperating from tuberculosis. Peter Fagan, a 29-year-old Boston Herald reporter, became Keller’s secretary during this time and they fell in love. However, 1916 society, including Keller’s family and Sullivan, didn’t think women with disabilities should get married or have normal romantic desires. Fagan and Keller had taken out a marriage license and had planned to elope. They tried twice to run off together, but were stopped by Keller’s family and teachers. The third time, Keller waited on the dark porch with her packed bag, but Fagan never showed up. Some of Fagan’s family say the family legend is that Fagan was threatened by the Keller family and he retreated because he feared for his life. They also say Keller’s teacher Anne Sullivan was jealous of anyone else getting close to Keller and insisted the relationship end.

#10 She was a dignitary with many famous friends.

Helen became a celebrity among celebrities and she met a number of influential and famous people.

Among her friends were author Mark Twain and inventor Alexander Graham Bell. She made quite an impact on Mark Twain. They met at a lunch held for her in New York in 1895. He was so impressed with her that he encouraged his benefactor to fund her education, which he did. The financial support allowed her to pursue a college education, becoming the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree.

Twain once said, "The two greatest characters in the 19th century are Napoleon and Helen Keller. Napoleon tried to conquer the world by physical force and failed. Helen tried to conquer the world by power of mind — and succeeded!” Perhaps inspired by Keller, one of Twain’s famous quotes is, “Kindness is a language which the deaf can hear, and the blind can see.”

Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the light bulb, helped connect her family to the Perkins Institute for the Blind, where they found Anne Sullivan and where Helen later attend school for a few years. She dedicated her first book, The Story of My Life to him, “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, I dedicate this Story of My Life."

She met 12 U.S. presidents - every U.S president from Grover Cleveland to John F. Kennedy. She also met leaders of other countries, including the Queen of England, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister of Israel Golda Meir, and Japanese Emperor Hirohito.

Additionally she met many famous people, including Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, Eleanor Roosevelt, Will Rogers, Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, Charlie Chaplin, Katharine Cornell, Jo Davidson, Martha Graham, Enrico Caruso, and Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes.

#11 She was a political activist with strong political views, which were considered radical.

Keller said, “So long as you can sweeten another’s pain, life is not in vain.” She lived by that mantra and is remembered as a social activist who fought for the rights of others. What many don’t know is that she had strong political views, which were considered radical for the time.

She wrote socialist pieces and was such a controversial author that the FBI did surveillance on her, and the Nazis burned a collection of her political essays in 1933. Media that once supported Keller lashed out at her for her socialist beliefs. She remarked on the change of attitude from one editor, “At that time the compliments he paid me were so generous that I blush to remember them. But now that I have come out for socialism he reminds me and the public that I am blind and deaf and especially liable to error.”

Causes she advocated for included:

  • She was a suffragette who advocated for women’s right to vote and access to birth control.
  • She was a pacifist and protested the U.S. involvement in World War I.
  • She was an early supporter and donor of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), fighting particularly for the rights of blind African Americans.
  • She joined the Socialist Party and fought for workers' rights.
  • She co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 1920.
  • She helped to found Helen Keller International in 1915.
  • In 1921, Helen joined the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) and worked for the organization for over 40 years.
  • She testified before Congress, strongly advocating to improve the welfare of blind people.
  • In 1925, Keller addressed the Lions Club at their International Convention in Cedar Point, Ohio. She challenged Lions to become “knights of the blind in the crusade against darkness.” Since then, the Lions have worked to aid the blind and visually impaired. They have helped millions of people worldwide and continue to have sight programs designed to prevent blindness, restore eyesight and improve eye health and eye care.

#12 Helen Keller Day is celebrated on her birthday – June 27th.

Helen Keller with cake.Helen Keller being presented with her birthday cake in 1955. Polly Thomson is on her left and guiding her hand. (Photo Credit: American Foundation for the Blind)

Helen Keller’s June 27th birthday is commemorated as Helen Keller Day.

Helen Keller Days have been proclaimed by the mayors of Newark, New Jersey, Annapolis, Maryland, and is recognized annually in the state of Pennsylvania and Alabama. Helen Keller Day was authorized at the federal level by presidential proclamation by President Jimmy Carter in 1980, for the 100th anniversary of her birth.

Her birthplace, a plantation called Ivy Green in Tuscumbia, Alabama, is now a museum and the City of Tuscumbia hosts an annual Helen Keller Festival the last week of June.

 

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