I spend so much time reading and researching history for the blog that I often run across facts that I had never heard of before – not surprising. While I’m delighted to learn a new piece of history, I sometimes wonder why I’ve never heard about it until now. I’d always been led to believe, for instance, that Helen Keller was the first blind and deaf child to be successfully educated. While her accomplishments were many and she overcame much adversity, later becoming a celebrated advocate for the disabled, Helen Keller was not the first. That distinction belonged to Laura Bridgman – born more than fifty years before Keller.
Laura Bridgman was born on December 21, 1829 to parents Daniel and Harmony Bridgman. She was a sickly child and at the age of two years contracted scarlet fever; two of her older sisters died and Laura was left deaf, sightless and with no sense of smell or taste – only one of her senses, touch, remained.
While her mother made sure she was well-groomed and cared for, little attention was paid to her by the rest of the family. According to Elizabeth Gitter, author of The Imprisoned Guest: Samuel Howe and Laura Bridgman, The Original Deaf-Blind Girl, Laura was befriended by Asa Tenney, a hired man who worked for her father, who himself had some sort of communication difficulty. He was aware of the use of a type of sign language by Native Americans and taught Laura some form of communication during her formative years.
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