Women’s History Month – Laura Dewey Bridgeman

Laura Dewey Bridgeman (1829 – 1889) had a normal infancy.  Then, at age 2, she developed scarlet fever.  She lost her sight, and hearing.  Her taste and smell were also badly damaged.  This occurred nearly fifty years before Helen Keller was born.  She was five months older than her later counterpart, and she likely had some speech and other vocal and hearing skills before she lost her sight and hearing.
Much like Helen Keller, Laura spent three years with limited ability to communicate with the outside world.  No one knew how to reach her, and she didn’t know how to reach those she couldn’t see or hear.  She developed her own sign language, which was a common practice at the time.  Living on the frontier, her families knowledge of a deaf population, or deaf school would have been limited.
The Perkins School for the Blind was founded about this time.  Within five years, they had heard of Laura, and wanted to try to help her. By the time she was eight, she traveled without her family, sight, or sound to a strange place she had never been.  It had been six years, or 2/3 of her life since she had been able to see, hear, or communicate with those around her.
Her earlier attempts at language had laid a foundation to build upon.  This was before braille.  They used raised letter labels, and touching objects to formulate names.  Later, she learned the alphabet, after she could recognize words.
She was ready to learn.  To label items she knew and recognized.  And eventually, items, she didn’t recognize.
At age 12, she met Charles Dickens.  She had been at Perkins for four years.
At age 20, she completed her training and returned home.  At this time, there were no guide dogs, canes, or other tools the blind and deafblind recognize and use daily to function as a normal part of life.  Her family simply didn’t have the time to be with her, and assist her through each day.
She returned to Perkins School for the Blind and lived there until her death in 1889.  However, she continued to write, to do needlework, and to be an active part of other students lives.

While back at Perkins School for the Blind, she commonly performed the tasks she had learned how to do in front of visitors.  While today, we look down on “sideshow” activities, these were vital in the days before television.  Today, we send a camera crew, and then watch it on tv.  If we have questions, there are no answers.  Then, people could see first hand what a deafblind person could accomplish.  They could talk to her.  Ask questions.  And take home information to help other partially deafblind in their own community.

Thanks to Laura Dewey Bridgeman, some people began to recognize that deafblind could be active members of society.  In fact, without her help, Helen Keller may not have had Anne Sullivan to teach her.  Laura Dewey Bridgeman even traveled to visit people she wrote to.  Something that would be lost for deafblind people at certain points in history. Sadly, during the industrial revolution, travel became more dangerous for deaf, blind, and deafblind, even though their numbers soared due to disease and accidents. We only now beginning to make progress toward independence again.  And only in very large cities.  Which are dangerous dues to toxic fumes as the deafblind people walk with their canes and smart phones to navigate the objects they cannot see of hear.

Works Cited: All Accessed on 02/23/17

https://www.nwhm.org/education-resources/biography/biographies/laura-bridgman/

http://www.perkins.org/history/people/laura-bridgman

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