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The Gift Of Speech

From: Out Of The Dark
Creator: Helen Keller (author)
Date: 1920
Publisher: Doubleday, Page & Company, New York
Source: Available at selected libraries

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*Address before the German Scientific Society of New York, April 8, 1913.


I am glad that so many intelligent people are interested in helping the deaf to speak. You have asked me to come here and tell you how you can help in a work that is near to my heart. I am happy to stand before you, myself an example of what may be done to open dumb lips and liberate mute voices. I was dumb, now I speak. Intelligent instruction and the devotion of others wrought this miracle in me. What has been done for me can be done for others. You can all help the deaf child. You can help him by being interested in his struggle. You know now, if you have not known before, that he can learn to speak, and you can spread the knowledge that shall save him.


What the world needs is enlightened understanding on many subjects. There are plenty of brains and plenty of good-will in the world.


All that we need is to put them together. We must put thought and understanding into our efforts to help people. So much time and money are wasted every day because we do not get to the root of our difficulties!


In the case of the deaf, physicians and parents often retard the development of deaf children because they do not realize the necessity of an early start. When the physician knows that the organ of hearing is permanently impaired, the child should be placed under the guidance of a skilful teacher, even while there may still be hope of improvement. Nothing can be lost by beginning his education at once. Should he be fortunate enough to recover his hearing later, in the meantime the years will have been well spent educationally. If lifelong deafness is his lot, he will have had the advantages of a prompt beginning. The psychological period for the acquisition of speech and language will not have been lost, and the difficulty of teaching him will be lessened, and the result will be far more satisfactory.


Speech is the birthright of every child. It is the deaf child's one fair chance to keep in touch with his fellows. In many ways deafness is a greater disaster than blindness. Blindness robs the day of its light and makes us dependent and physically helpless. Deafness stops up the fountain-head of knowledge and turns life into a desert. For without language intellectual life is impossible. Try to imagine what it means to be deaf and dumb. Perpetual silence, silence full of longing to be understood, to speak, to hear the voices of our loved ones; silence that starves the mind, fetters the spirit and adds still another burden to labour.


Deafness, like poverty, stunts and deadens its victims, until they do not realize the wretchedness of their condition. They are incapable of desiring improvement. God help them! They grope, they stumble with their eyes wide open, they are indifferent. They miss everything in the world that makes life worth living, and yet they do not realize their own bondage. We must not wait for the deaf to ask for speech, or for the submerged of humanity to rise up and demand their liberties. We who see, we who hear, we who understand must help them, must give them the bread of knowledge, must teach them what their human inheritance is. Let every science do its part -- medicine, surgery, otology, psychology, education, invention, economics, mechanics. And while you are working for the deaf child, do not forget that his problem is only part of a greater problem, the problem of bettering the condition of all mankind. Let us here and now resolve that every deaf child shall have a chance to speak, and that every man shall have a fair opportunity to make the best of himself. Then shall we mend the broken lyre of human speech and lessen the deafness and blindness of the world.