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Helen Keller statue unveiled at Capitol

  • Story Highlights
  • Helen Keller lost her sight and hearing to illness when she was 19 months old
  • Statue depicts when teacher Anne Sullivan spelled "W-A-T-E-R" into the child's hand
  • She traveled the world, wrote books, championed women's and workers' rights
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A bronze statue of Helen Keller was unveiled at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday as lawmakers praised her as a trailblazer and an inspiration for those with disabilities.

Helen Keller traveled the world, wrote 12 books and championed women's suffrage and workers' rights

The Helen Keller statue depicts the moment when Anne Sullivan spelled "W-A-T-E-R" into the child's hand

"Some are still dismissed and cast aside for nothing more than being less than perfect," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said at the unveiling ceremony. "The story of Helen Keller inspires us all."

The statue shows Keller -- who lost her sight and hearing to illness when she was 19 months old -- standing at a water pump as a 7-year-old, a look of recognition on her face as water streams into her hand. It depicts the moment in 1887 when teacher Anne Sullivan spelled "W-A-T-E-R" into one of the child's hands as she held the other under the pump. It's the moment when Keller realized meanings were hidden in the manual alphabet shapes Sullivan had taught her to make with her hands.

"W-A-T-E-R," said Alabama Gov. Bob Riley. "Five simple letters that helped rescue 7-year-old Helen Keller from a world of darkness and a world of silence.

"It is this defining moment that we celebrate today. And in time, this moment so vividly depicted by this statue helped the world to understand that all of us, regardless of any disability, have a mind that can be educated, a hand that can be trained, a life that will have meaning."

Keller learned to speak and earned a degree from Radcliffe College and the women's branch of Harvard University. She traveled the world as an adult, wrote 12 books and championed causes including women's suffrage and workers' rights.

Carl Augusto, president and CEO of the American Foundation for the Blind, told the crowd he thinks Keller, who worked for the foundation for the last 44 years of her life, "would have loved this impressive statue of herself and the symbolism attached."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, and others assisted Augusto as he ran his hands over the statue.

The foundation, Augusto said, still considers Keller "our guiding light. She embodies the American spirit of limitless possibility ... her biggest desire was to leave the world a better place than she found it, and ladies and gentlemen, that's the legacy she leaves all of us."

More than 40 of Keller's descendants attended the ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda. Students from the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind sang a medley of patriotic songs.

The statue, said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, will "always remind us that people must be respected for what they can do rather than judged for what they cannot."

The statue is also the Capitol's first depicting a child, Riley's office said.

Since 1864, each state has been allowed to place two statues in the Capitol. In 2002, Congress changed the law to allow states to change their statues. Riley, then a U.S. representative, suggested the state place a statue of Keller, and the state Legislature passed a resolution asking Congress to accept a statue of Keller as a gift.

A committee with Alabama first lady Patsy Riley serving as honorary chairwoman raised private donations and selected Utah bronze sculpture artist Edward Hlavka to create the piece.

The 600-pound statue is made of bronze with a base of Alabama marble, Riley's office said.

In 1997, a Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial that opened near the National Mall drew complaints from disability advocates because the statue of the president, who suffered from polio, did not show him in a wheelchair. In 2001, President Clinton unveiled an addition to the memorial including a new statue of the four-term president sitting in a wheelchair.

"By placing this statue in the Capitol, we appropriately honor this extraordinary American, and will inspire countless children who will come to understand that with faith and with courage, there truly are no limits on what can be accomplished, and there is no obstacle that can't be overcome," Riley said.

Keller's statue will replace one depicting Jabez Curry. Curry, who has represented Alabama in the Capitol since 1908, was a Georgia native who served as president of Howard College, which later became Samford University in Birmingham. The Curry statue is being sent back to Alabama for display at the university.

The other statue representing Alabama is of Joseph "Fightin' Joe" Wheeler, a Confederate general during the Civil War who, three decades later, volunteered to serve in the Spanish-American War at age 62 and attained the same rank in the U.S. Army, the only one of 425 Confederate generals to do so, according to a biography of him posted on the Fort Sam Houston Museum's Web site. His statue was donated by the state in 1925, Riley's office said.

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