NEW YORK -- "Cat, cat, cold, cold, doll, doll" were Helen Keller's first handwritten words, and they represent an important moment in the remarkable life of a woman who helped bring about meaningful change for the disabled by writing incessantly to state legislatures, Congress and presidents.
Written on a single page in neat handwriting, the words are the first document to greet visitors at a new exhibition, "Helen Keller: A Daring Adventure," opening May 7 at the midtown Manhattan headquarters of the American Foundation for the Blind (www.afb.org).
Elsewhere in the exhibit, a photograph shows a blind salesman operating a newsstand with an accompanying letter from Keller to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that says, "Work is the only way for the blind to forget the dark, and the obstacles in their path."
The foundation is letting the public see some of its vast Helen Keller holdings as part of a fundraising effort to digitize the archival collection totaling 80,000 letters, photographs, books and artifacts bequeathed by Keller, who worked for the foundation for 44 years.
Keller, whose childhood is depicted in the play and film "The Miracle Worker," lost her hearing and vision at 19 months. She wrote her first words when she was 7, just 15 weeks after her beloved teacher, Anne Sullivan, arrived at the Keller household in 1887.
Her enormous progress is demonstrated in another letter just two years later in which she writes, "I study about the earth and the animals, and I like arithmetic exceedingly. I learn many new words too. Exceedingly is one that I learned yesterday."
The two documents are among 61 of Keller's personal items on display, 31 of which have never before been in a public exhibition. She joined the American Foundation for the Blind in 1924, three years after it was founded.
"This is an extraordinary event by our organization to provide this kind of public access," said Carl R. Augusto, the foundation's president. Keller became "a prolific writer, a peacemaker, a passionate advocate, not just for blind and disabled people, but for equal rights."
Keller was constantly pushing for more and better programs, products and technologies for the disabled. Many services today are due to her efforts, such as talking books, a uniform Braille system, increased Social Security payments for the blind and legislation that allowed visually impaired people to run newsstands.
Helen Selsdon, the foundation's archivist, hopes visitors will come to understand the breadth of Keller's accomplishments. "She transcended her time. She was unflinching to her commitments to her ideals ... her activism.
"She did more than anyone hopes to do with all our senses. She flew around the world in the 1940s and '50s when she was in her 60s and 70s," Selsdon said.