Opening the Door to Learning
Reading Comprehension Activity

Laura Bridgman was the first deaf and blind person to learn to read and write, opening the door for others like her. Students will read a biography of this remarkable woman and answer questions about main ideas and details, drawing conclusions, making inferences, and cause and effect.

Topic(s): History. Skill(s): Main / Central Idea. Genre(s): Informational

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Today, people who are deaf and blind can receive a standard education. Schools and organizations help them make the necessary adaptations. However, this was not always the case. At one time, educators had few ideas about how to teach children who were both deaf and blind.

Laura Dewey Bridgman may have been the first deaf and blind person to learn how to read and write. She was born in New Hampshire on December 21, 1829. Scarlet fever destroyed both her hearing and her sight at age two. The illness also damaged her senses of smell and taste. Only her sense of touch was not affected.

Young Laura learned to perform tasks such as sewing by following her mother’s hands, yet she had few ways of expressing her thoughts or interacting with other people. Then a local handyman, Asa Tenny, taught her to communicate using a system of signs. A professor at nearby Dartmouth College heard about this and wrote a newspaper article about Laura.

The article attracted the attention of Dr. Samuel Howe, head of the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston. Most educational experts believed it was impossible to teach a deaf and blind student reading, writing, or arithmetic. Dr. Howe wanted to tackle a new challenge-teaching Laura.

At age 8, Laura began living at the Perkins School. Dr. Howe needed to develop new methods of teaching because of Laura’s deafness. He had Laura feel an item, such as a spoon, and then run her fingers over a label that had the word spoon spelled in raised letters. Initially Laura struggled to understand the relationship between the item and the word. Finally, after several weeks, her face “lighted up with human expression . . . [as] this truth dawned upon her mind,” according to Dr. Howe.

Laura learned to read words, and then she worked backward to learn the alphabet and numbers. Eventually she was able to keep a journal of her thoughts and experiences. Previously, people had little knowledge of what went on in the mind of a deaf and blind person. Laura showed that she was as intelligent and capable as anyone.

Laura and the school became famous. She returned home at age 20 but struggled to adjust to life in rural New Hampshire. After three years, she returned to Perkins, where she lived for the rest of her life. She taught sewing to other sightless students, exchanged letters with many people, and made crafts to sell to tourists who visited her. 

Laura Bridgman is not as famous as Helen Keller, who also suffered a childhood illness that left her blind, deaf, and mute. Helen’s mother read about Laura Bridgman’s successful education, which inspired her to seek help for Helen. This led to Anne Sullivan, a recent graduate of Perkins, tutoring Helen. Helen went on to college, graduating in 1904, and became a successful educator and journalist.

These two women helped show the world how intelligent and successful a deaf and blind person could be.

Comprehension Questions

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