University of Pittsburgh


She Touched the World: Laura Bridgman

Written by Joshua Shriftman

Driving down the highway on a warm autumn day, the third-grade teacher spots something odd. In the sunlight shining off passing cars, a little black line, like a crooked spiral, hovers in the air. She dismisses it, goes to her job, returns home, carries on with her life. But when it happens again, the line takes a little bit of her vision as it departs.

Sarah “Sally” Hobart Alexander was 24 years old when this happened to her in California in 1967. She saw many doctors, but the little lines kept coming back, first in her right eye, then in both. Her vision continued to deteriorate. Eventually, she learned that her eyes were hemorrhaging, and the blood was scarring her retinas. She had to leave her life in California to seek training skills in Pittsburgh, where she lost the remainder of her vision, and where her hearing started to fail, as well.

Pittsburgh also was where Alexander learned braille and other skills to tackle these challenges. In 1973, she earned a graduate degree in social work from Pitt. Then, over the course of a decade, she got married, had two children, became a full-time author of award-winning children’s books, and began teaching as a university adjunct professor.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Alexander’s latest book, coauthored with her husband, Robert, tells the story of another woman who overcame great odds to achieve success: She Touched the World: Laura Bridgman, Deaf-Blind Pioneer (Clarion Books). Bridgman, born in 1829, is considered the first deaf-blind child in America to acquire an English-language education. The book portrays her birth to an emotionally cold family; her toddler-age encounter with scarlet fever, which left her both deaf and blind; the inspiring story of her intellect and education; her fame as a role model; and her accomplishments as an educator. She Touched the World, which also will be available in braille and in recorded and digital formats within the year, shows that Bridgman was a pioneer years before the more famous Helen Keller, who was born in 1880.

Alexander (SOC WK ’73G) is moved by Bridgman’s ability to progress despite others’ ignorance and prejudice. “She was a little bit different. So what?” Alexander says. “If people had better information, they would understand why someone who is blind doesn’t look you directly in the eyes, why they might not have as many facial expressions or use as many gestures. Disability is different, not less than.”

The Pitt graduate has written six books dealing with blindness. She seeks to teach children about disabilities because, she says, so many everyday decisions are based on a gut reaction of “is that person like me?”

In She Touched the World, Alexander shows that all of us share common bonds, and some—like Laura Bridgman—exceed all expectations.