While Helen Keller is famous as a breakthrough student in deaf-blind education, she was actually preceded by a woman not as well known, Laura Bridgman.
Bridgman was born in New Hampshire in 1829, and when she was two years old, she caught scarlet fever. Laura survived, but lost her senses of sight, smell, and hearing. She created her own simple signed language with the help of a local man named Asa Tenney. Laura was also able to learn to perform household tasks such as sewing by feeling her mother’s hands completing the chore.Despite this limited ability to communicate, Laura’s family relationship struggled as she grew increasingly frustrated and would have violent fits of temper.
When a Dartmouth college professor heard about Laura’s communication through signs, he wrote an article for the local Hanover, New Hampshire paper. The article made its way to Dr. Samuel Howe, head of the Perkins School for the Blind. Howe was intrigued by the prospect of teaching language to a person both deaf and blind, and he convinced Bridgman’s family to let her come to his school in Boston, which she did in the fall of 1837.
Howe’s method for teaching Laura Bridgman the concept of language was innovative. He labeled familiar objects with paper labels showing raised letters. After he allowed Laura to associate the names with the objects, he removed the labels and allowed Laura to match the label to its original object.
Although Laura was able to learn to pair the labels to objects rapidly, Dr. Howe was not certain that she had grasped the true essence of language. His next step in teaching consisted of cutting the labels into individual letters and having Bridgman rearrange those letters into the correct word. When she was able to complete this assignment, Howe was convinced that Laura understood what language was.
When she was twenty, Laura left Perkins and returned to her family home, but her health suffered and she had difficulty adjusting to being mostly alone again. After three years, she returned to Perkins, and lived at the school until her death in 1889.
Laura was a prolific letter writer during her years at Perkins, and traveled to visit friends and family, often spending summers with her parents. She made and sold needlework pieces and contributed to household chores at the school.
Laura Bridgman, although she never attended a college like her more famous counterpart, Helen Keller, was the first deaf-blind person considered to have truly learned language, and thus is a very important figure in Deaf culture and history.