A Healthy Mind
Extraordinary Individuals with Physical Disabilities
“A happy life consists not in the absence, but in the mastery of hardships.”-Helen Keller
“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.” -Helen Keller
Only two people have ever received The Helen Keller Lifetime Achievement Award. Helen Keller herself and Tom Sullivan. Tom Sullivan is a famous blind musician, actor, entertainer, and author—an inspiration. He has done incredible things despite almost dying as an infant due to being over-oxygenated in his incubator. Tom’s relationship to Helen stretches beyond what I had an even imagined. I stumbled across his book As I See It: My View From the Inside Out, while searching for Helen’s autobiography. I read the book and saw things from an entirely different perspective. One chapter that really stuck with me was about interdependence. Many people see interdependence as a bad thing, but Mr. Sullivan explains how people don't understand there is a need to be interdependent and it is actually a good thing. He clarifies in this chapter that while it is important to hone your personal skills and strive to be better on your own, you will be a selfish person if you don't have relationships you depend on. Interdependence surrounds us more than one might think and has great benefits (Sullivan 43). I reflected on the interdependence of Tom and the people around him, Helen Keller with Annie, Cosette with her nurse aids, and myself with friends and family. I realized without relying on other people, we would actually be completely lost.
I decided to email him to ask him if he feels a connection to Helen Keller in any way. He sent back an email with more than I could even ask for. He sent me a voice recording sharing a story about actually meeting Helen Keller. Excitement filled me at this connection! Tom and Helen attended the same school, Perkins School for the Blind, decades apart. Helen returned to Perkins to be honored for her 80th birthday. While ceremonies were being prepared for her arrival, mischievous young Tom was in the kitchen stealing cookie dough for other blind children. Upon being caught he was sentenced to the punishment chair in the principle’s office. Soon after Helen Keller walked into the principle’s office as well. Her aid spelled to her there was a boy who stole cookies in there. Helen spoke to Tom, “Oh little boy they tell me you’re a devil, is that true?” Tom spelled in Helen’s hand “yes." Helen responded, “Good keep it up!” Her response put a smile on Tom’s face and warmed my heart. While this was not the response one may have anticipated, it made Helen’s wonderful personality shine through. Helen looked at things with humor and a light heart. I think Helen saw her young self in Tom. Helen and Tom were both extremely mischievous children. Young Tom Sullivan represented a young Helen Keller, and then he grew, just like her, into an inspirational and brilliant figure. In the words of Tom Sullivan, "If extraordinary people can do impossible things, isn't it reasonable to assume that ordinary people can do extraordinary things?" (Sullivan).
“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much”-Helen Keller
In 2007 a termed coined “The Rescuing Hug” made headlines, after a healthy newborn twin was placed in an incubator with her dying twin sister. The healthy twin placed her arm on the dying twin, which increased the dying twin’s oxygen levels and overall condition. The dying twin survived. This is not a miracle—just a demonstration of the powerful effect of a bond between siblings.
Helen Keller and her only sister Mildred were very close. Mildred provided a friendship to Helen like no other and was also supportive. I’d like to imagine Mildred was Helen’s first friend, after she began to learn language because she was closest in age to Helen. Mildred could have easily resented Helen for all the attention and time she required; yet they formed a bond. Mildred learned Helen’s language. Their relationship even extends into Radcliff College, which they attended together for a period of time. While at times Helen felt hopeless during her college career, the entire time Mildred was there Helen reflects on how happy she was in her autobiography. They studied together and spent their free time together. They were each other support system.
Cosette and her twin sister Rachel have been best friends since birth. Rachel would do anything for her and has always been extremely patient. After Cosette's first surgery, she was trapped alone in her hospital crib. She had tubes and needles coming out of her. A nurse suggested that Cosette's condition might improve if Rachel was put in crib to lie next to her. My stepmom told me that she was uneasy about putting Rachel in with Cosette because she feared Rachel would be scared of the tubes and be confused that Cosette couldn't talk or move. She said her gut told her it would be okay though, so she allowed Rachel to be put in the same crib as Cosette. Within a couple of hours the same phenomenon as the "Rescuing Hug" occurred. Cosette's blood pressure increased, her breathing levels steadied, and her heart rate slowed. Rachel was never once frightened by Cosette's state. Rachel has been by Cosette's side since day one and has never left. They are the epitome of a strong relationship between siblings. Siblings are some of the best sources of valuable interdependence.
“It’s a terrible thing to see and have no vision.” –Helen Keller
From the very moment she could write, Helen began to write letters that have been preserved to this day. There is a special section of Helen’s autobiography that has some of these letters in it. Helen’s letters are more than just written words. They represent a growth in Helen and hold some of her deepest, strongest emotions. Helen’s letters grew with her progress. Her first letters are simple and grammatically incorrect—yet no doubt impressive for a blind and deaf girl who just began to understand words less than three years prior. In just a few months she can write in advanced proper English. Contrasting two letters, one was written when she was five years old and the other was written when she was nine years old, one can see there is a huge difference. In the first letter she writes simple, straggly words; in the second she forms neat sentences. Her later letters even contain intense imagery and imagination. One of my personal favorites is a letter Helen wrote to her mother while studying in Boston when she was around nineteen years old. The writing is flawless and contains beautiful, witty phrases. Being blind, Helen was used to being asked questions about how she imagines color or what music was to her. A particular question was asked in Boston stumped her. It was: “What is beauty in your head?” Helen confessed to her mother that she was taken aback for a moment, but then responded, “Beauty is a form of goodness." Her words ring with truth (Keller 216).
“The highest result of education is tolerance”-Helen Keller
Photo 3: Radcliffe College from the Library of Congress in November 2014.
After Helen graduated from Perkins Institute for the Blind, she spent a year at the Cambridge School for Young Ladies. After that, Helen went to Radcliffe College. It was not labeled as a college for disabled people. Radcliff College was a respectable institution and the majority of its students were not disabled. This fact, however, did not stop Helen from entering school with high spirits. The school is not very large, but it has beautiful architecture. It is four stories high with a tower in the background and tress surrounding the front. It made me think of my elementary school since colleges looked much different then.
Helen was eager to learn, but after attending her first few classes her spirits diminished. College was much faster paced than she anticipated, and she confesses that college was not the “romantic lyceum” she imagined. Helen faced a problem that many college students feel suppressed by today: lack of time. She only had time to memorize and learn—instead of think, reflect, and imagine. Nonetheless, Helen found a way to prosper. She became the first deaf and blind person to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree at the age of 24.
Although Helen could not learn like the average student, she still managed to succeed in other ways. Instead of listening to lectures, Helen had them spelled into her hand—word after word. She learned to spell quicker and think quicker. Helen used a special typewriter, known as the Hammond typewriter, to complete her work because it was very versatile. Although there were obstacles, Helen worked diligently and endlessly to learn and understand the material using different approaches. Despite all the intellectual information she learned, Helen declares the most precious thing she learned did not come directly from a textbook, but rather came from her experience: patience (Keller 87, 91).
A healthy mind imprisoned by an impaired body can break a person.
It can suck the life out of them—but only if they let it. While having a disability imposes difficulties, everyday things and extraordinary things can still be accomplished with motivation and using new approaches.
Currently Cosette still cannot breathe on her own nor does she have the use of her legs. She doesn't have use of her left arm, but some of her right arm function returned, but it is very weak. Despite these facts Cosette attends Bridgewater Public High School in New Jersey with two thousand other students. Some have questioned if this was a good idea since her needs are so great, but it would not be fair to let her healthy mind suffer due to the state of her body. In school Cosette uses the assistance of an aid to help write her notes and stay organized. She does most of her work using a computer that she can control with her eyes, called The Eyegaze. Each letter can be typed with the movement of her eyes back and forth blinking. Her eyes are the computer's mouse clicking each letter, but she can also research the internet and have all the other regular functions of a computer. It’s fascinating to watch how quickly she learned to maneuver this. While it takes time to do anything, Cosette works tirelessly and maintains all As and Bs in her classes including English, precalculus, physics, and even German!
During her lifetime, Helen Keller advocated for equality for people with disabilities. She worked tirelessly for equal rights. The Americans With Disabilities Act banns prejudices in public places against people with disabilities and protects their rights. While this act was passed after Helen lived, she began a stirring for it during her lifetime. The stirring she created for equality among people with disabilities helped launch Cosette to where she is today, in classes with peers of the same mental capabilities. Decades ago she would not have been able to attend a public school. The government would not have allowed it, and she would have most likely been sent to live in an asylum.
Right now Cosette tells me her biggest aspiration is to attend college in a year and a half. She doesn't just want to attend, but she wants to be able to live on campus to get the full experience she deserves. In order to do this though she would need nurse care for twenty-four hours a day but currently only has nurse care for sixteen hours. It would be too expensive to pay for the extra eight hours on her own, so Cosette is looking for other avenues. She told me she contacted the school board at her high school who have reached out to colleges about Cosette's situation. They asked the colleges if they have ever had a student with Cosette's disabilities and if there are scholarships she could apply for to help pay for the extra eight hours of nursing and they are waiting to hear back. Cosette is determined to go to college and remains hopeful. She will not held back by her physical disabilities.