The First Helen Keller
When you think about the first deaf-blind child to be educated, you will most likely think of Helen Keller. In reality, though, Helen’s frustrated teacher was not the first to attempt this type of education.
I was amazed to learn about Laura Bridgman. When I was in elementary school, I only learned about Helen Keller. I really think that kids should be educated about Bridgman as well, if not more importantly.
Laura Bridgman was the first deaf-blind person to learn language.
She was born on December 21, 1829 in Hanover, New Hampshire. When she was 2 years old, her family was struck with scarlet fever. The illness killed three of her siblings and left her blind and deaf without a sense of taste or smell.
As a child, she had no language.
Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, the director of the Perkins School for the Blind, heard about Laura’s condition and was determined to educate her. In 1837, Laura began attending the school.
Dr. Howe had met Julia Brace at the American School for the Deaf. Julia was deaf-blind and communicated using tactile sign. Howe wanted to teach Bridgman how to read and write using the tactile method. To his knowledge, this method had not yet ever been attempted.
Howe and his assistant began with using raised letters and then progressed into the manual alphabet being used through tactile sign. He taught her words first, then letters.
Her education was successful. In 1839, Laura legibly wrote her name. Laura had her first lesson in arithmetic in 1840. She was like a daughter to Dr. Howe, and her success became a public interest. Others with her condition were brought to Dr. Howe in hopes for the same success.
In 1842, Charles Dickens met and wrote about Laura in his American Notes–talking about Dr. Howe’s success with her.
Special teachers were appointed to her in 1843. Laura was learning geography and astronomy. She was also given some religious instruction.
Despite her irritability and need for self-control lessons, Laura was a very happy and optimistic person. However, after the death of her older sister in 1860, Laura had a religious crisis and was received into the Baptist church. She was more self-conscious and quiet after her sister’s death.
Dr. Howe built cottages separate from the main Institution in 1872. Laura was moved from the larger house into one of the cottages. She led a quiet life there.
Dr. Howe died in 1876, which was devastating for Laura. However, Dr. Howe provided for her financially and made sure she would be able to live at the Institution for the remainder of her life.
Laura Bridgman died on May 24, 1889.
In the education of the deaf and blind, Laura’s story is historical.
Believe it or not, Kate Keller, Helen Keller’s mother originally hired Anne Sullivan, Helen’s well known teacher, after reading Charles Dickens’s account of Laura Bridgman. Sullivan had learned the manual alphabet from Laura Bridgman herself, which she used to educate Helen.
Laura Bridgman made the further education of the deaf and blind possible. It truly is amazing how one person can positively influence so many lives.