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Laura Bridgman: The Deaf-Blind and American Sign Language

 

by Valerie Huffman
June 9, 2007

 

 

Laura Bridgman: The Deaf-Blind and American Sign Language


 
The most achieved deaf individuals in history have also been blind, perhaps the reason for this being the immense obstacles they overcome to achieve greatness. (Tabak 2006) The most famous deaf blind individual to a majority of people is Helen Keller, but perhaps the ‘original’ Helen Keller was, Laura Bridgman. (Ruark 2001)
Laura Bridgman’s struggle was even more difficult than that of a deaf blind individual.  By the age of two, after the effect of suffering from Scarlet fever, she had lost her sense of hearing, and most of her senses of sight, taste, and smell. (McGinnity2004)  She could detect light from one eye until she walked into her mother’s spinning wheel.  (Tabak 2006)  She was lucky though, after all, her two sisters had died from the same disease that had robbed her of her most precious senses. (Tabak 2006)
Laura was almost “trapped” inside her own body, just as a victim of a coma, not being able to communicate to her family or experience the world as she once had.  Laura’s world was different now, she was left only being able to communicate through a few “home signs” that told her family of her basic needs.  She was left somewhat helpless, although she possessed the ability to knit and sew. (Tabak 2006)
Laura’s fate was soon about to change when at the age of seven she caught the eye of Samual Gridley Howe, head of the recently established New England Asylum for the blind, now the Perkins School for the Blind. (Tabak 2006)  Laura Bridgman’s first years at the Asylum for the Blind were spent with Lydia Drew. (Tabak 2006) 
Drew taught Laura the names of common objects through touch.  She placed raised letters onto the objects they identified  (the early start of the Braille system first described in a 1829 publication, didn’t become common in the US until later in the nineteenth century).  (Tabak 2006)  Laura soon could match the object to the word and would later learn the sequence of the letters.  She soon learned the importance of these raised letters and the idea of communication. (Tabak 2006)
 Drew then proceeded to teach Laura the manual alphabet, and soon Laura was just like other students, taking several classes while a teacher was beside her to fingerspell to her.  (McGinnity 2004)  Laura’s success was a phenomenon to many, rising success of her education granted Laura stardom almost to the caliber of Queen Victoria. (Ruark 2001) Laura’s curious and cheerful personality, along with her beauty evoked the curiosity of many people.  Others were left in pure astonishment of her expanded education. 
Laura was a symbol of America’s humanity, and willingness to educate each of its citizens regardless to social class or disability. (Tabak 2006) The Asylum for the Blind, due to Laura Bridgman became a tourist attraction and many famous people visited.  Charles Dickens even wrote of her. (McGinnity 2004) 
In her later years, her stardom began to fade, yet, Laura Bridgeman lived out her life at the school, and in adulthood, she befriended Ann Sullivan, Helen Keller’s future teacher.  Before she died, she sent a doll that she had dressed herself to nine-year-old Keller. (Tabak 2006) 
 
 
Works Cited

McGinnity, B.L., Seymour-Ford, J. and Andries, K.J. (2004).  Laura Bridgman. Perkins History Museum, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown, MA. Retrieved 30, May 2007: <http://www.perkins.org/museum/section.php?id=213>

Ruark, Jennifer K. (2001, April 6).  Unearthing ‘the original Helen Keller’.  The Chronical of Higher Education.  The ConnSENSE Bulletin.  Retrieved 30, May 2007: http://www.connsensebulletin.com/keller.html

Tabak, J. (2006).  Significant Gestures.  Westport, CT.  Praeger Publishers.

 


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