“Blindness cuts us off from things, but deafness cuts us off from people.”
Did Helen Keller actually say this? No one knows.
She did express the idea in different ways. In one letter she wrote, “The problems of deafness are deeper and more complex, if not more important, than those of blindness. Deafness is a much worse misfortune. For it means the loss of the most vital stimulus — the sound of the voice that brings language, sets thoughts astir and keeps us in the intellectual company of man.”
Helen Keller lost her vision and her hearing when she was 19 months old, from an infection that was probably scarlet fever or meningitis. Like many toddlers at that age, she had some spoken language, which was presumably lost in the trauma of her illness.
Today Helen Keller’s parents would be offered the option of cochlear implants and speech therapy. Because she was also blind, conventional sign language would not be an option. The Deaf-Blind today use a form of sign language called fingerspelling, or tactile sign language, which Keller herself used. She also learned to speak, although her speech was labored and difficult to follow.
Those with serious hearing loss often cite this quote. Although cochlear implants and hearing aids restore hearing, it may be to limited degree. Even with additional assistive devices and good lip-reading, a person with severe to profound hearing loss may still have trouble following speech in any but ideal circumstances. I know, because I’m one of them.
Nevertheless, I am certain that, given her blindness, Helen Keller would have embraced today’s cochlear implant technology. In a remarkable historic video, Keller speaks about the loss not of sight or hearing but fluid speech:
“It is not blindness or deafness that bring me my darkest hours. It is the acute disappointment in not being able to speak normally. Longingly I feel how much more good I may have done, if I had only acquired normal speech. But out of this sorrowful experience I understand more clearly all human striving, wanted ambitions, and infinite capacity of hope.”
When she died in 1968, at 87, the New York Times cited her many accomplishments: “she was graduated from Radcliffe; she became an artful and subtle writer; she led a vigorous life; she developed into a crusading humanitarian who espoused Socialism; and she energized movements that revolutionized help for the blind and the deaf.” She was a “symbol of the indomitable human spirit.”
It is hard to imagine that she could have “done more good” with the ability to speak. But her quotes suggest that she would have embraced the chance to hear “the sound of the voice that brings language, sets thoughts astir and keeps us in the intellectual company of man” — and to respond with speech.
Katherine Bouton is the author of “Living Better With Hearing Loss: A Guide to Health, Happiness, Love, Sex, Work, Friends … and Hearing Aids,” and a memoir, “Shouting Won’t Help: Why I — and 5o Million Other Americans — Can’t Hear You”. Both available on Amazon.com.
This essay first appeared in a slightly different form on AARP Health.