13. Helen Keller
Contrary to popular belief, Helen Keller was not born deaf and blind. A childhood illness of unknown origin took her sight and hearing at the age of 19 months. As a child, she learned to communicate with her immediate household using signs and distinguished when someone entered a room from the vibration of their footsteps. Through the intercession of Alexander Graham Bell, Keller met Anne Sullivan, herself visually impaired, who taught Helen of the existence and meaning of words. Keller attended the Perkins Institute for the Blind beginning in 1888, schools in New York for the blind and deaf, and eventually entered Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
She graduated in 1904, at the age of 24, the first deaf and blind person in the United States to obtain a bachelors degree. Helen became a world-famous lecturer, author, and advocate for the disabled. She took controversial political positions, supporting women’s suffrage, pacifist movements before and during both World Wars, socialism in the United States, and birth control. She was also an active supporter of the study and practice of eugenics. Most of her political views were excised in biographies and articles about her published after she died, concentrating instead on her courage in overcoming her disabilities. Unable to see or hear, she published 12 books in her lifetime, and her life continues to inspire people to overcome physical and mental disabilities in the 21st century.