Helen Keller was preceded by two other deaf-blind women who heavily influenced her life and brought new hope to people with disabilities. All three women also have direct ties to suffrage leader and author of “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, Julia Ward Howe.
Julia Brace (1807-1884) became deaf and blind at the age of five due to a high fever from contacting typhus. Despite this, she stayed inquisitive and independent. She was offered a place at Hartford Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb (currently known as the American School for the Deaf). She was popular and made many friends. After graduation, she was hired as an employee at the school. In 1837 Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, a teacher at Perkins School for the Blind in Boston and future husband to Julia Ward Howe, visited the Hartford Asylum and became inspired by the tactile sign language that Brace used to communicate. Upon his return to Boston, he started to teach the tactile sign language to his deaf-blind student Laura Dewey Bridgman.
Laura Dewey Bridgman (1829-1889) lost nearly all of her senses due to scarlet fever at the age of two. She was blind, deaf, had no sense of smell, and very little sense of taste. Her inability to communicate showed up as frequent outbursts and her family had limited resources to help her. Deaf-Blind people were considered unteachable and unreachable. Dr. Howe brought her to the Perkins School for the Blind when she was almost eight years old in hopes of educating her. Building upon Brace’s tactile sign language, Howe developed it into a complete alphabet and started teaching spelling, reading, and communicating in full English words. Once Bridgman realized that she was learning actual words, she became an avid student. She went onto learn the standard school curriculum of geography, history, reading, writing, math and philosophy. During her time at Perkins, she shared a room with Anne Sullivan, who was blind, and taught Sullivan the tactile sign language. At 20 Bridgman graduated and returned to her family farm in New Hampshire, but she did not thrive. Funds were raised by Howe and mental health advocate Dorothea Dix to allow Bridgman to have a permanent home at Perkins School and still be able to visit her family from time to time.
During her lifetime, Bridgman was extremely famous. She was held up as a standard of overcoming obstacles. Howe commissioned artist Sophia Peabody (who would later marry Nathaniel Hawthorne) to create a bust of Bridgman. The copies of the bust were given to influential legislators to promote schools for the blind. Charles Dickens met Bridgman and described her in his book, “American Notes” (1842). Letters and autographs from Bridgman were sought after collectibles.
Helen Keller (1880-1968) had a fever and went blind and deaf before the age of two. Her family had heard of Bridgman and wrote to Perkins School asking for assistance. Anne Sullivan was sent as a tutor to Keller and Keller eventually attended school at Perkins. They became lifelong friends. With Sullivan at her side, Keller went on to become one of the most recognizable names in history as an inspirational speaker, advocate for disabilities, and suffragist.