Today’s airplanes can practically fly themselves, but back in the 1940s, the thought of a blind and deaf person flying a plane must have been mind-blowing. But that was probably the reaction that author, lecturer, and disability rights activist Helen Keller was aiming for. And considering all that Keller accomplished in her life, the fact that she was up for the challenge of piloting an airplane doesn't seem all that surprising.
For about 20 minutes during a flight from Rome to Paris in 1946, Keller took the controls of a four-engine plane. She was able to do this with directions from her companion Polly Thomson, who communicated with Keller by “finger-spelling” words into her hand, relaying the pilot’s instructions.
Just another day in the amazing life of Helen Keller:
- “The plane crew were amazed at her sensitive touch on the controls,” Thomson said after the flight. “There was no shaking or vibration. She just sat there and flew the plane calmly and steadily.”
- In addition to writing 14 books and hundreds of speeches and essays on topics ranging from dogs to world peace, Keller was a tireless political activist – not just for people with disabilities but also for women's suffrage, labor rights, and other causes. She was a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
- Before Keller educated generations of Americans about disabilities, blindness was a taboo topic. She helped remove the social stigma around blindness, which had often been associated with venereal disease.