DeafBlind History

Unknown (1637): John Winthrop, Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, met adventitiously deafblind elderly woman in Ipswich who received receptive communication through the printing of block letters on her palm, and retained understandable speech

Martha Hatfield (1653): Reference to her being deafblind

Victorine Morriseau – France (1789-1832): First known deafblind person to be taught a formal (religious) language

James Mitchell – Scotland (1795-1869)

  • congenitally deafblind son of Scottish minister (soon after birth mother discovered he did not turn toward light [cataracts] and did not awaken to loud sounds)
  • used curiosity, touch, smell, taste and gestures to interact with environment

Sanzan Tani – Japan (1802-1867)

  • became deaf in childhood
  • memorized the great books and became teacher; awarded prestigious teaching position by government of Japan for his excellent knowledge
  • despite later blindness continued to teach about the great books, communicating through touch with his students

Julia Brace (1807-1884)

  • first known deafblind, communicating in tactile sign, to be in school in U.S., but memory overshadowed by accomplishments of Laura Bridgman and Helen Keller
  • born June 13 in what is now known as Newington, CT; family very poor (father cobbler)
  • normal development until age 4 ½  years when typhus fever resulted in total blindness and total deafness; eventually lost speech; relied on keen sense of smell and touch for contact with environment; used homemade signs for needs, commands, and approval/disapproval; assisted with simple chores and care of younger siblings
  • charitable person boarded her with elderly matron who taught small children; learned to sew and knit
  • at 17 years enrolled in what is now known as the American School for the Deaf (ASD); initially resistive but conformed to expectations; quickly became proficient in using signs tactually through interaction with people at ASD
  • learned to associate words with objects through manipulating wooden letters and pins on cushion to create words (no raised letters or braille not used); no further formal education because could not justify extensive personal attention to older student
  • assumed regular duties (e.g., dishes, beds), as well as the knitting and sewing which occupied much of her time (strong sense of routine); formed friendships, sharing in joys and sorrows and compromising (strong sense of right and wrong); learned money (from charitable donations) was means to satisfy wants
  • in 1828 matron Lydia Sigourney published an account of Julia in the widely circulated Juvenile Miscellany, which was later followed by three poems about the “deaf, dumb and blind girl”
  • in 1834 Perkins Director Dr. Samuel Howe met Julia and conceived plan for teaching deafblind
  • in 1837 principal Lewis Weld submitted lengthy description of Julia to the annual report of the Hartford Asylum, along with Sigourney’s series of reminiscences of Julia
  • in 1841 Perkins Director Dr. Samuel Howe brought (deafblind) Laura Bridgman to ASD; Julia lost interest in Laura because she did not sign
  • in 1842 at age 34 Julia attended Perkins; had infrequent lessons, learning fingerspelled names of some objects; used manual alphabet for short times but kept reverting back to familiar sign
  • in 1843 returned to ASD as paying boarder; occasionally fingerspelled names of few common objects along with their signs
  • in 1860 lived with married sister in Bloomfield CT
  • died August 12; buried in unmarked grave in West Hill Cemetery

Lucy Reed (1827-?)

  • normal development until 3 years
  • in 1841 at age 14 entered Perkins; learned less than 100 fingerspelled nouns
  • became seamstress

Oliver Caswell (1829-?)

  • born November 1
  • normal development until 3 years, 5 months, lost vision and hearing
  • in 1841 at age 12 entered Perkins; acquired manual alphabet to fingerspell some 100 nouns and few adjectives and to converse on common topics; patient, persevering student

Laura Dewey Bridgman (1829-1889)

  • forgotten deafblind, the first to learn the English language via one-hand tactile manual alphabet, to receive formal education, and to be successfully educated in U.S. prior to Helen Keller
  • born December 21 in what is now known as Hanover, NH; parents farmers
  • normal development until age 2 years when scarlet fever struck family, killing two older sister and brother, and Laura almost died; resulted in near total blindness, total deafness, as well as loss of sense of  smell and taste; learned to walk again about a year later; at 7 years lost ability to detect few fuzzy images in right eye; became disobedient and frustrated with communication barrier
  • part-time farm hand/Dartmouth College student told professor about Laura; professor visited Bridgman family and told Perkins Director Dr. Samuel Howe, describing her as an “alert, clever deaf and blind girl”
  • in 1837 at age 7 Laura was enrolled in Perkins; initially upset but settled down
  • learned written English(because in oral environment and belief signs limited to tangible things): felt few common objects (e.g., key, spoon, etc,) with their respective raised letter words on these objects (Braille not yet used)
    • (raised letter word labels detached from objects) selected objects according to given labels and vice versus
    • followed suit with other objects (e.g., cup, knife, book, etc.)
    • from pile of raised letter word labels, search for word associated with object
    • (raised letter  word labels cut up) felt one word’s individual raised letters side by side
    • from scrambled raised letters of one word, arrange into correctly spelled sequence to form word associated with object
    • from pool of scrambled individual raised letters for number of words, selected  raised letters for specific word and arrange into correctly spelled sequence to form word associated with object
    •  (after 2 months) fingerspelled words associated with objects
  • associated each raised letter of word with each fingerspelled letter per object
  • fingerspelled more nouns
  • fingerspelled moral attributes (e.g., good, bad, etc.)
  • fingerspelled  verbs (e.g., open/shut door, etc.)
  • fingerspelled adjectives (e.g., hot, etc.)
  • fingerspelled prepositions (e.g., in, etc.), adverbs (e.g., lovely, etc.), connecting words (e.g., and, etc.), and articles (e.g., the, etc.)
  • wrote letters on grooved paper (discovered can communicate without touch)
  • read books in raised type
  • learned subjects (e.g., arithmetic, geography, etc.)
  • reporters read Dr. Howe’s annual school report to state education department and newspaper accounts of Laura appeared in Massachusetts and other northeastern states, thus Laura and Dr. Howe became national figures
  • Charles Dickens’ written account of his U.S. trip included Laura, who then became known in Europe; Scottish author Thomas Carlyle also wrote about Laura; examined by world leading psychologists G. Stanley Hall and Wilhelm Wundt
  • Helen Keller’s mother read about Laura in Charles Dickens’ ”American Notes”; Anne Sullivan, Helen’s teacher-to-be, studied Laura’s school records and learned manual alphabet from Laura; Laura made doll for Helen which Anne brought to Helen
  • as adult Laura remained at Perkins, assisting staff and doing sewing, knitting and crocheting to earn money and writing letters
  • in 1887 celebrated 50th anniversary at Perkins
  • died May 24

Ragnhild Kaata – Norway (1873-1947)

  • born on farm
  • normal development until age 4 years when undiagnosed fever resulted in loss of hearing, vision, smell and taste; learned to speak, read, and write; read lips/ letters printed on palm
  • learned spinning and weaving and led industrious life

Helen Adams Keller (1880-1968)

  • best known deafblind individual who “triumphed over personal adversity”  with a educator/companion to be her eyes and ears to the world; developed self-image of blind person who could not hear, received the English language through the manual alphabet and vocalized her responses; first known deafblind to graduate from college
  • born June 27 in Tuscumbia, Alabama; father served in Confederate army during Civil War, was cotton plantation owner, edited a news weekly and periodically was US Marshall
  • normal development until 19 months when undiagnosed fever called “brain fever”(perhaps scarlet fever or meningitis.) resulted in blindness and deafness; remembered “wah-wah” for water from before fever; invented some 60 gestures (e.g., When she wanted bread, she pretended she was cutting a piece of bread and spreading butter on it, etc.);  rebellious and frustrated with communication barrier
  • specialist in Baltimore confirmed Helen’s deafblindness and referred them to Alexander Graham Bell, activist in oral deaf education, who recommended Perkins; Anne Sullivan, 20 year old recent Valedictorian Perkins graduate, was offered the position by its Director Michael Anagnos
  • in 1887 (March 3) refuse Anne’s authority as teacher (e.g., eating with hands rather than with utensils) and imitated Anne’s tactual fingerspelling of words associated with objects (e.g., doll [given by Laura]), thinking it was a game and not understanding the connection between the fingerspelling and objects
    • Moved into small cottage with Anne on family’s estate to work on behavior
    • temper tantrums followed by Anne’s refusal to fingerspell with Helen
    • became more obedient but still not comprehend the concept of words
    • (April 5) at famous water pump discovered the cool liquid coming from the pump had a name, that of fingerspelled “w-a-t-e-r” and that other objects had names too (e.g., pump, trellis)
    • walking back to house flitted from object to object asking for their fingerspelled names  and Anne’s name (teacher)
    • within few hours learned fingerspelling of 30 words
    • (near Helen’s birthday) had fingerspelled vocabulary of 100s words, simple sentences and fingerspelled alphabet
    • read raised letter words  on slips of cardboard associated with objects, action, quality * placed sequence of raised letter words on objects to create sentences (e.g., doll on bed with words “is” “on” “bed” beside doll, etc. )
    • arranged raised letter words into sentences within a frame
    • (May) read first story
    • (Summer) printed block letters within grooved writing board on paper (“writing with pencil and guiding end of the pencil with index finger of her left hand”), mailed letters to relatives, and learned Braille alphabet (eventually wrote with typewriter and Braille writer)
    • (Spring 1888) first of a number of trips to Perkins and viewed as “miracle” child for her quick learning and retention
    • (summer) learned and wrote French, Latin and German phrases
    • (1889) learned to say sounds, letters and syllables by feeling mouth and position of tongue, and learned speechreading  by putting fingers on others’ lips
    • Perkins Director Michael Anagnos wrote articles about Helen as “phenomenon.” Helen appeared in national newspapers
    • (1890 -94) inspired by Norway’s Ragnhild Kaata’s ability to speak,  Horace Mann Deaf School to learn more speech
    • (1894) Wright-Humason School in New York City to continue speech (in the end her speech was understood by only a few, close people because her vocal cords were not properly trained prior to being taught to speak)
    • (1896) Cambridge School for Young Ladies
    • (1900) passed entrance exam and enrolled in Radcliffe College (women’s branch of Harvard), one of few schools that did not welcome her, saying she could not compete with her sighted-hearing classmates; Ann fingerspelled huge volume of material from textbooks and lectures into Helen’s hand , resulting in deterioration of Anne’s vision; (1904) graduated with Bachelor’s degree in English and German cum laude; (1954) Radcliffe granted her its Alumnae Achievement Award
    • 50 year writing career: “The Story of My life”, first in serial form for Ladies’ Home Journal (1902), and later published (1903, initially a flop but became a classic, translated into 50 languages; “The World I Live In” (1908), revealed for first time her thoughts on her world; Out of the Dark (1913), essays on socialism and its impact on her public image, influenced by John Macy (Anne’s husband) and joined Socialist Party;” My Religion” (1927); “Midstream: My Later Life” (1929;, “Peace at Eventide” (1932); “Helen Keller in Scotland’” (1933); “Helen Keller’s Journal,”  (1938); “Teacher” (1955); and, other books, poetry, journals, essays and articles, some of them on blindness, deafness, social issues and women’s rights
  • (1913) lectured in U.S., spoke of her experiences and beliefs with Anne  interpreting
  • (1914) lectured abroad (England, France, Yugoslavia, and Japan)
    • (1940s) lectured in Australia, Germany, Africa, Latin America, India and other places
    • became advocate for the disable, women and the poor (e.g., de-institutionalizing the blind, etc.)
    • (1914) secretary
    • (1922) second companion,  Polly Thompson (when Anne was in ill-health and died in 1936); Polly’s nurse
  • third companion, Winnie Corbally (when Polly died in 1960)
  • (1916) socialist-journalist
    • temporary secretary-companion Peter Fagan filled in during Anne’s illness and Polly’s absence
    • Peter declared his love for Helen and she fell for him, and they both kept relationship a secret
    • reporter discovered their application for marriage license and wrote newspaper article
    • Helen’s mother dismissed Peter and forced Helen to publicly renounce her engagement
  • (1918) starred in biographical silent movie, “Deliverance”, which was failure
  • (1920s) vaudeville tour of water pump scene and answering personal questions (experiences, politics), with Ann interpreting,  was hugely successful
    • (1953) biographical documentary, “The Unconquered”, later renamed “Helen Keller and her Story”, won Oscar
    • (1957) live television play, “The Miracle Worker”, won Pulitzer Prize (1960)
    • (1959) Broadway play, “The Miracle Worker”, received rave reviews
    • (1962) movie, “The Miracle Worker”, won Oscars
    • extensive fund-raising tour for (1920s) the Helen Keller Endowment Fund for the American Foundation for the Blind and (1940s) American Foundation for the Overseas Blind, now known as Helen Keller Worldwide
    • visited (1880s-90s) President Grover Cleveland, (1954) President Eisenhower, (1961) President Kennedy; met (1931) King George and Queen Mary at Buckingham Palace, (1932) George Bernard Shaw, (1955) Prime Minister Winston Churchill, (1955) Prime Minister Nehru; (1961) last public appearance at Lion’s International in Washington DC
    • received numerous national and international awards for humanitarian effort: honorary doctoral degrees from Temple University (Pennsylvania), Universities of Glasgow (Scotland: LL.D. 1932), Berlin (Germany), Delhi (India), Witwatersrand (South Africa), Harvard (LL.D., first woman to be honored,  1955); Theodore Roosevelt Distinguished Service Medal (1936), Distinguished Service Medal from the American Association of Workers for the Blind (1951), Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor (1952), Brazil’s Order of the Southern Cross, Japan’s Order of the Sacred Treasure, Philippines’ Order of the Golden Heart, Lebanon’s Gold Medal of Merit, Americas Award for Inter-American Unity, Lions Humanitarian Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1964, highest honor American civilian can receive); one of 20 elected to the Women’s Hall Of Fame at New York World’s Fair (1965)
    • died June 1; funeral and burial at National Cathedral in Washington DC; bronze plaque erected with following inscription in Braille: “Helen Keller and her beloved companion Anne Sullivan Macy are interred in the columbarium behind this chapel.” (Frequent touching of Braille has resulted in plaque being replaced two times)
    • in her will bequeath her papers and memorabilia to American Foundation for the Blind (The Helen Keller Archival Collection)