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Laura Bridgman and the History of Disability
Ernest Freeburg. The Education of Laura Bridgman: First Deaf and Blind Person to Learn Language. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001. 264 pp. Notes, bibliography, and index. $27.95.
Elisabeth Gitter. The Imprisoned Guest: Samuel Howe and Laura Bridgman, The Original Deaf-Blind Girl. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001. 341 pp. Notes, bibliography, and index. $26.00
In the summer of 1832, on a small farm near Hanover, New Hampshire, the three daughters of Daniel and Harmony Bridgman fell ill with scarlet fever. Two of them died. The youngest, two-year-old Laura, survived, but was left deaf, blind, and with her senses of taste and smell impaired. She retained perception of light and shadow in one eye until the age of five when she walked into the spindle on her mother's spinning wheel and lost that vestige of sight.
In that same year, Samuel Gridley Howe became the director of the newly formed New England Asylum for the Blind in Boston. Having drifted aimlessly through college and medical school, in 1824 Howe had followed Byron to join the fight for Greek independence from the Ottomans. While there he soldiered, treated the wounded, organized a hospital and relief projects, raised money, wrote a history of the revolution, and managed a utopian agricultural colony. Seven years later he returned to Boston a hero. Casting about for another righteous and exciting cause, Howe took up the education of the blind, which he and others at the time saw as both virtuous and adventurous. Not only was it part of a larger constellation of idealistic reform efforts in the early nineteenth century, but in addition the education of blind people promised to shed light on important philosophical questions, such as the relationship between sensory experience and knowledge, the nature of thought and language in the absence of visual imagery, and the extent to which ideas and faculties were innate.
Laura Bridgman's mother, in the meantime, had more prosaic concerns: how to tell Laura when she had done well or misbehaved, and how to teach her household chores. She did her best to communicate with Laura via tactile [End Page 227] gestures but never progressed beyond a small vocabulary for simple concepts, and she managed to teach her to do a few everyday tasks such as setting the table, churning butter, sewing and knitting. It was Laura's good fortune that she was befriended by a local eccentric named Asa Tenney who was attuned enough to Laura's needs to develop with her a rough and ready gestural communication. He set about introducing her to the things of the world in the fashion she needed, by directing her hands to them. Together they explored her parents' farm and the surrounding fields, collecting eggs, feeling the dirt and grass, picking berries, and playing in the brook. It was not a formal education but it was better than most deaf-blind children got (and better than many still get). "I loved him as a father," Bridgman later wrote.
In the meantime, Howe's school was well established and running smoothly. Always restless and in search of new challenges, he had been considering undertaking the education of a deaf-blind student when the English writer Harriet Martineau, on a visit to the United States, impressed upon him the significance that such a project would have as a natural psychological experiment. Philosophers such as Diderot had imagined such an experiment before. A person lacking the two principal senses, it was often imagined, ought to be nearly as ignorant and innocent as an infant. What a deaf-blind child learned and experienced might be monitored by an experimenter, making it possible to determine which aspects of moral, spiritual, and intellectual knowledge were innate to human nature and which came from experience. Howe was anxious to be that experimenter. As a Unitarian, he hoped to demonstrate that human nature was inherently good, contrary to Calvinist belief, and that...