Today in 1961, Easton resident Helen Keller received a birthday greeting from President John F. Kennedy containing high praise for her lifetime’s worth of hard work and advocacy for people who, like herself, were blind and/or deaf. In it, he wrote: “You are one of that select company of men and women whose achievements have become legendary in their own time. Your tireless endeavors on behalf of blind people everywhere have gained friends for the United States and the cause of Democracy, and have won for you a permanent place in the history of human progress.”
Born in 1880 in Alabama, Helen Keller contracted an unknown illness as a toddler that left her permanently deaf and blind. When she was six, she experienced what she called the “birthday of her soul” when Anne Sullivan, a graduate of Boston’s Perkins School for the Blind, arrived in Alabama to become Helen’s personal aide and teacher. Sullivan was able to break through the communication barrier with young Helen by teaching her how to sign letters with her fingers, instilling a lifelong thirst for knowledge in her pupil. Helen went on to study at Perkins herself and, in 1904, became the first deaf-blind person to earn a college degree after graduating from Radcliffe College cum laude.
Keller, who also learned to verbally speak and communicate with braille and physical lip reading, went on to become a world-famous writer and motivational lecturer who championed better education and living conditions for people with disabilities, as well as a litany of progressive social causes like labor rights and women’s suffrage. After the death of her first teacher and close friend Anne Sullivan in 1936, Keller moved to Easton, Connecticut, where she lived out the rest of her life. There, on June 20, 1961, she received her special birthday letter from the President.
Kennedy’s well wishes were not the first that Keller received from a sitting U.S. president, nor would they be the last. Earlier in her life, she had also met with Presidents Taft, Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Eisenhower, all of whom she personally spoke with about the rights of Americans with disabilities. In September 1964, Keller would also receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Lyndon B. Johnson. A meaningful and inspirational life recognized by the nation’s highest office — today in Connecticut history.
John F. Kennedy, “Letter to Helen Keller from John F. Kennedy, June 20, 1963,” American Foundation for the Blind
“Helen Keller,” Perkins School for the Blind