Before Helen Keller, There was Laura...
Laura Bridgman was the first deaf-blind person ever to learn language. Born in 1829, a half-century before Helen Keller, she fascinated and awed people by overcoming her disabilities.
The daughter of farmers in Hanover, New Hampshire, Laura contracted scarlet fever at the age of two. It destroyed her hearing, her sight, and most of her sense of smell and taste. She shortly forgot the few words she had learned. By the time she was seven, she didn't even know she had a name.
Laura communicated with a few simple gestures and had been taught to behave and even set the table, thanks to punishing smacks given to her by her parents. But in the early 19th century, the deaf-blind people were classifed as either insane or as "idiots."
In 1837, Samuel Howe, the founder of the Perkins Institute for the Blind, read a doctor's account of Laura and persuaded Laura's parents to bring her to live at the school in Boston. Part of Boston's Unitarian reform movement, Howe believed God provided people with distinct faculties,and that Laura, like everyone else, had an Organ of Language hidden just behind her eyes. He was determined to teach her to communicate through words.
Howe and another teacher, Lydia Drew, made paper labels with raised letters and taught Laura to place these on the appropriate objects. Within three months of coming to Perkins, Laura had learned a hundred nouns and was starting on verbs. After a year, she could communicate in simple sentences and after two years, she was writing letters home. By the time she was twelve, Laura was making up short stories, doing math, and studying geography.
Now, due to Howe's publicity campaign to promote his school, Laura had become an international celebrity. As the growing educated middle-class sought novelty and enlightenment, Laura's "freakish" fame grew and grew. This, and her devotion to Howe, coupled with the onset of puberty and her sometimes demanding and irritable behavior, was the beginning of "real" problems that would follow her forever. When Howe married and left for a honeymoon in Europe, in 1843, Laura's life changed dramatically. Sixteen months later, when Howe returned, Laura was a different girl. For Howe, "the great romance of Laura's rescue from darkness was over," and he turned on Laura, "with a sudden and surprising vehemence." The teachers blamed it on Laura's free will, for her "personality and soul had jumped the track", they had laid down for her. Howe continued to support her financially, but that was the end of it. Soon, a prettier, maybe smarter, deaf-blind girl (Helen Keller) came along and virtually eclipsed Laura in the public's mind.
Laura Bridgman died in 1889, at the age of 59. Fourteen years later, Howe's daughters published a book: Laura Bridgman: Dr. Howe's Famous Pupil and What He Taught Her.