She Touched the World tells the story of deaf-blind pioneer Laura Bridgman. Laura was born December 21, 1829, a "delicate plant" of a child to Harmony and Daniel Bridgman of Hanover, New Hampshire. Although prone to some type of "fits" for the first two years of her life, these disappeared and she developed into a bright, inquisitive two year old. However, in February 1832, Laura and her older sisters, Collina and Mary became ill with what was thought to be scarlet fever. Both Collina and Mary died, while Laura lingered for weeks with a high fever that destroyed her sight and her hearing, as well as leaving her without the ability to taste or smell. Laura's world now became one without light or sound. She was unable to develop the ability to talk or interact with her brothers and parents.
Being a child with a strong sense of curiosity, Laura began to explore her home by touch. She learned to identify everything in her home and on the farm by touch and stayed close to her mother. Laura soon learned to knit, braid, iron, churn butter, sew, set the table and bake. However, she was often left alone because her parents had many chores and responsibilities.
When a professor, Dr. Reuben Mussey learned about Laura he came to the remarkable conclusion that Laura was teachable and very desperate to learn. This was a most unusual view to form about the disabled in the early 1800's because they were considered unteachable. When Dr. Mussey published a piece about Laura, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, director of the New England Institution for the Education of the Blind saw it and was interested. He visited Laura and immediately wanted her to move to Boston to live with him and his sister.
On October 12, 1837, Laura left her home in New Hampshire and moved to the Institute in Boston. Although initially deeply upset, Laura soon began to adapt. Howe assessed Laura and determined that she was totally blind but understood the difference between light and darkness. Her sense of touch was remarkably well developed to the point that she recognized people by the touch of a hand. Laura was also sensitized to people's moods, being able to tell their mood by touch. Although Howe tried to teach her to speak, he was unsuccessful. But it is probable that Laura could have been taught to speak. Howe decided though that it was possible to free Laura from her prison and that she could learn to communicate with the world around her.
Sally and Robert Alexander outline Howe's method to teach Laura the names for objects and how using Howe's method she was able to develop language skills. Laura learned language at the age of eight, just before it became too late for her brain to develop this skill. It is now believed that children must learn language before puberty if they are to be able to communicate properly. But at the time Laura lived, this wasn't yet fully understood. Gradually Laura developed the means to communicate with people and her natural inquisitiveness helped her to make great strides in learning.
She Touched The World is a fascinating account of how one man open the possibilities for the disabled and how one very determined young woman demonstrated that given the right training, there were many possibilities for the disabled to live full productive lives. There are many black and white pictures of both Laura and the important people in her life as well as samples of her writing and needlework. This book is an excellent account of someone young Canadian's might not have heard about. One of the authors, Sally Hobart Alexander lost her sight at the age of 26 and also is partially deaf as well.
She Touched The World. Laura Bridgman, Deaf-Blind Pioneer by Sally Hobart Alexander and Robert Alexander
New York: Clarion Books 2008