Laura Bridgman- The First Deafblind Education
Updated: Feb 11
This is coming to you hot on the heels from Deafblind Awareness Week (but obviously not so hot on the heels that it's on time because that would be ridiculous). Enjoy, this is a great story.
Laura Bridgman was mad as hell. No-one understood her. She would shout and scream and stamp her feet until eventually her father, the only one who could get through to her, put his foot down.
When the family was given the option to send her away to boarding school, you can hardly blame them for jumping at the chance. She arrived at her new home in Massachusetts just before her eighth birthday.
No-one could blame her for her frustration, these weren't just childhood tantrums but the only way to make herself understood. She had been a sickly but average child until 1831 when, aged 2, she contracted scarlet fever. It killed two of her older sisters and she was ill for many weeks. When she recovered she had lost her sight, her hearing and her sense of taste and smell. The only way her family could get through to her was the feeling of the vibrations of her father's stomp on the floor.
Typically at this time, Deafblind people were assumed to be unteachable, but a visiting doctor noted how bright she was, having come up with a rudimentary signing system alongside her childhood friend (thought to be based on a Native American sign language) and being able to sew and lay the table.
Soon, the director of the Perkins Institution for the Blind had heard about her, and wanted to educate her in a way that hadn't been done before. He had previously met a Deafblind young woman at a Deaf Institution who had been taught a form of sign language, but he wanted to have a go at English, and had a plan to teach her via touch.
She was a young girl still when she arrived, homesick and scared. All she knew was that she was being taken somewhere. However she adapted quickly to her new surroundings and so the next task was developing a method of teaching her.
The first hurdle was understanding the concept of language. She was so young when she lost her sight and hearing, that she had no real understanding of standard communication. So they started with objects she already knew, like keys and cutlery, and made labels with the name for the item in raised letters. Soon, she had identified which label went with which object, but via memory rather than reading.
Then, they cut up the words into individual letters. By spelling out the word with the individual letters and then mixing them up, she had a breakthrough and realised that the different letters she could feel in certain orders meant different things.
As soon as she had accomplished that, she demanded to be taught the name of everything she came into contact with which I imagine was very rewarding but made going anywhere very slow.
She excelled at school. Once she had access to language, she did all the same lessons as everyone else, like maths, history, geography and philosophy and became an avid letter writer as an adult. However, her individual teachers who worked with her one on one were very close friends, and when they left the school to take on other jobs or get married, she was hit hard with it. Particularly when the director himself married a woman who has a "physical distaste for the abnormal and defective" (she sounds great) and went gallivanting for a 15 month long honeymoon.
In 1842 Charles Dickens, having seen the frequent updates from the school's director sent to European journals, visited Laura and wrote extensively and glowingly of her education, abilities and personality in his book American Notes. She became world famous, with people visiting the school and watching her read and answer questions. Now of course this is problematic at best, but she seemed very excited to have the attention, after so long spent in the corner (metaphorically).
She spent many years at the school, but when she turned 20 her education came to an end and the time came to return to her home and family. They tried their best but were busy working all the time, and didn't have the time to dedicate to being there all the time communicating with her. It was clear she was deteriorating and needed to return to the school.
Since she had been so famous, the director and staff of the school were able to raise enough money to pay for her room and board at the school for the rest of her life. She had a good life there, living in one of the cottages with students, helping cook and clean and selling her crochet and needlework (some of which still survives). She also became a very prolific letter writer by using a writing frame, and used that to keep in touch with her family and friends all over the world, including her old
teachers and companions who had moved on
from the school.
She fell ill and died at Perkins in 1889, age 59, as the first Deafblind person to receive an education in the English language, leaving a legacy for anyone who was both deaf and blind. She had taught the manual alphabet to many of the girls who lived with her including Anne Sullivan who later on took that knowledge, along with a doll Laura had made, to the home of Helen Keller, who would go on to become the first deafblind person to graduate from university.
Perkins School for the Blind Archive
The Imprisoned Guest: Samuel Howe and Laura Bridgman, the Original Deaf-Blind Girl, Elisabeth Gitter