Hearing Impairment Series-Disabled Legend Laura Bridgman

Laura Dewey Bridgman was born on 21 December, 1829 in Hanover, New Hampshire, USA and died on 24 May, 1889. Laura was buried at Dana Cemetery in Hanover, New Hampshire, USA.

Laura is known as the 1st deaf-blind American child to gain a significant education in the English language, 50 years before the more famous Helen Keller. However, there are accounts of deaf-blind people communicating in tactile sign language before this time, and the deafblind Victorine Morriseau (1789-1832) had successfully learned French as a child some years earlier.

Laura was , being the 3rd daughter of Daniel Bridgman (d. 1868), a substantial Baptist farmer, and his wife Harmony, daughter of Cushman Downer, and granddaughter of Joseph Downer, one of the 5 1st settlers (1761) of Thetford, Vermont. Laura was a delicate infant, puny and rickety, and was subject to fits up to 20 months old, but otherwise seemed to have normal sense. However, Laura’s family was struck with scarlet fever when she was 2 years old. The illness killed her 2 older sisters and a brother and left her deaf, blind, and without a sense of smell or taste. Though she gradually recovered health she remained a deaf-blind, but was kindly treated and was in particular made a sort of playmate by an eccentric bachelor friend of the Bridgmans, Mr Asa Tenney, who as soon as she could walk used to take her for rambles a-field. Laura learned through touch to sew and knit as a child but had no language.

In 1837 Mr James Barrett, of Dartmouth College, saw her and mentioned her case to Dr Mussey, the head of the medical department, who wrote an account which attracted the attention of Dr Samuel Gridley Howe, the director of the Perkins School for the Blind at Boston. Dr Howe determined to try to get the child into the Institution and to attempt to educate her; her parents assented, and in October 1837 Laura entered the school.

Laura Bridgman was a comely child and of a sensitive and affectionate nature and was imitative in so far as she could follow the actions of others. However, she was limited in her communication to the narrower uses of touch. Laura’s mother, preoccupied with house-work, had already ceased to be able to control her, and her father’s authority was due to fear of superior force, not to reason. Dr Howe had been recently met Julia Brace, a deaf-blind resident at the American School for the Deaf who communicated using tactile sign, and developed a plan to teach the young Laura Bridgman to read and write through tactile means — something that had not been attempted previously, to his knowledge. At first he and his assistant, Lydia Drew, used words printed with raised letters, and later they progressed to using a manual alphabet expressed through tactile sign. Eventually she received a broad education.

Dr Howe taught words before the individual letters, and his 1st experiment consisting in pasting upon several common articles such as keys, spoons, knives, &c., little paper labels with the names of the articles printed in raised letters, which he got her to feel and differentiate; then he gave her the same labels by themselves, which she learned to associate with the articles they referred to, until, with the spoon or knife alone before her she could find the right label for each from a mixed heap. The next stage was to give her the component letters and teach her to combine them in the words she knew, and gradually in this way she learned all the alphabet and the 10 digits. The whole process depended, of course, on her having a human intelligence, which only required stimulation, and her own interest in learning became keener as she progressed.

Dr Howe devoted himself with the utmost patience and assiduity to her education and was rewarded by increasing success. On the 24th of July 1839 she 1st wrote her own name legibly. On the 20th of June 1840 she had her 1st arithmetic lesson, by the aid of a metallic case perforated with square holes, square types being used; and in 19 days she could add a column of figures amounting to 30. Laura was in good health and happy, and was treated by Dr Howe as his daughter. Laura’s case already began to interest the public, and others were brought to Dr Howe for treatment.

In 1841 Laura began to keep a journal, in which she recorded her own day’s work and thoughts. In January 1842 Charles Dickens visited the Institution, and afterwards wrote enthusiastically in his American Notes of Dr Howe’s success with Laura. In 1843 funds were obtained for devoting a special teacher to her, and first Miss Swift, then Miss Wight, and then Miss Paddock, were appointed; Laura by this time was learning geography and elementary astronomy. By degrees she was given religious instruction, but Dr Howe was intent upon not inculcating dogma before she had grasped the essential truths of Christianity and the story of the Bible.

Laura grew up a happy, cheerful girl, loving, optimistic, but with a nervous system inclining to irritability, and requiring careful education in self-control. In 1860 her eldest sister Mary’s death helped to bring on a religious crisis, and through the influence of some of her family she was received into the Baptist church; she became for some years after this more self-conscious and rather pietistic. In 1867 she began writing compositions which she called poems; the best-known is called “Holy Home.”

In 1872, Dr Howe having been enabled to build some separate cottages (each under a matron) for the blind girls, Laura was moved from the larger house of the Institution into one of them, and there she continued her quiet life. The death of Dr Howe in 1876 was a great grief to her; but before he died he had made arrangements by which she would be financially provided for in her home at the Institution for the rest of her life. In 1887 her jubilee was celebrated there, but in 1889 she was taken ill, and she died on the 24th of May. Laura’s name has become familiar everywhere as ,an example of the education of a deaf-blind. Helen Keller’s mother Kate Keller read Dickens’ account and was inspired to seek advice which led to her hiring a teacher and former pupil of the same school, Anne Sullivan. Anne learned the manual alphabet from Laura which she took back to Helen, along with a doll that Laura had made for her.

A Liberty ship was named after her.

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