Welcome to Typewriter Tuesday, a series from the American Writers Museum that aims to shed light on the typewriters and other tools behind some of your favorite works of literature. Check back every Tuesday to learn more about these trusty machines and the writers who used them. Our newest special exhibit Tools of the Trade opened June 22 and features more than a dozen typewriters, as well as other writing implements and instruments used by American writers.
Today we’re taking a look at a writing tool that is actually not a typewriter: Helen Keller’s braille writer, on loan from the American Foundation for the Blind.
“No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness.”
National Disability Independence Day is celebrated annually on July 26 to commemorate the day the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990. Many years before this momentous legislation passed, the incomparable Helen Keller tirelessly advocated for the rights of people with physical and mental disabilities largely through her writing, some of which may have been typed on the very machine pictured below.
How does Helen Keller’s braille writer work anyway?
A braille writer is a fascinating — and vitally important — machine. It works similarly to a typewriter, with a few notable differences. The writer only has 6 keys – each one represents one of the six points that make up all letters in braille. By pressing these keys in the right configuration, Keller and other blind writers of the time were able to imprint each letter on paper that was laid flat along the back plate of the braille writer. The hammer that allowed this would then move along the paper using a mechanism similar to the ribbon spool in a manual typewriter, allowing each letter to be individually typed. Check out the short video below to see Helen Keller using her braille writer:
Keller the Advocate
Keller was a phenomenal writer, but she was so much more than that. Among her many skills, she was an ambassador, suffragist, civil rights pioneer, and always an advocate for the deafblind community. Long before most people were concerned with ADA compliance, Keller was fighting for schools and resources for the blind in particular and generally for people with both physical and mental disabilities.
Notably, Keller was deeply involved with the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind (MCB), which was one of the first agencies in the country to provide services for blind adults. At the annual meeting of the American Association of Workers for the Blind in 1907, Keller presented a speech on behalf of the MCB, and her words ring true even today:
“We must see to it that in the diversity of interests one class of the blind is not overlooked for the sake of another, or any part of the work undervalued.”-Helen Keller, 1907, quoted in the Boston Transcript
She firmly believed that disabled children be given the same resources and education that was often advocated for in adults. While she believed in higher education (she was the first deafblind person to earn a Bachelor’s degree, AND the first woman to receive an honorary degree from Harvard after all), Keller’s message was that children deserve to be given opportunity and instruction regardless of their perceived ability. To this end, she eventually traveled to 39 different countries advocating for schools for the blind so that those doors may be opened to them.
The American Writers Museum is also committed to being an open space for all. To that end, we are so excited to offer braille guidebooks for our Tools of the Trade exhibit made by our friends at the Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Any other accessibility requests are always welcome, so feel free to contact us before your visit!