Martha’s Vineyard

I was intrigued by the phenomenon of Martha’s Vineyard and decided to explore it in more depth. In Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language, an article that was published a few years before the release of her seminal book of the same name, Nora Groce wrote about the history of deafness and sign language among the island’s population and provides some firsthand testimony from the elder members of the community who could still recall sign language being an integral part of community life (it has now fallen into disuse). Since the article is available online and I really just wanted to get an overview of the circumstances, it proved to be the perfect resource.

“We would sit around and wait for the mail to come in and just talk. And the deaf would be there, everyone would be there. And they were part of the crowd, and they were accepted. They were fishermen and farmers and everything else. And they wanted to find out the news just as much as the rest of us. And oftentimes people would tell stories and make signs at the same time so everyone could follow him together. Of course, sometimes, if there were more deaf than hearing there, everyone would speak sign language-just to be polite, you know.”

The photograph is of Chilimark post office-general store, which was a focal point among the local population for news and gossip, with conversations often held partly or fully in sign language (p 14).

Basically, as a result of a limited gene pool, hereditary deafness was present in the population at such extremely high frequency levels (even reaching one in four in one village) that communication by sign language became the norm. The island was first settled in the 1640s, and the settlers initially bred prolifically, with families of up to 30 siblings! Since there was not much contact with off-islanders, considerable inadvertent in-breeding occurred over the generations (many marriages took place within villages), and the recessive gene anomaly became widespread. The islanders saw nothing unusual in this since they had little contact with off-islanders and assumed that all communities had similar numbers of deaf people.

The point is that with there being so many deaf persons, sign language had to be adopted as the lingua franca. Children were taught sign from an early age, and the community became bilingual, communicating in sign language as part of daily life.

“If there were several people present and there was a deaf man or woman in the crowd, he’d take upon himself the discussion of anything, jokes or news or anything like that. They always had a part in it, they were never excluded.” (p 14)

There was no exclusion, and sign became an integral part of communication among the islanders.

“The participation of the deaf in all day-to-day work and play situations contrasted with the manner in which those handicapped by deafness were generally treated in the United States during the same time period.” (p 16)

Indeed, at the time deaf persons were widely treated as being stupid (hence the expression ‘deaf and dumb’), Oliver Sacks explains, much as they had assumed to be for thousands of years:

“to be defective in language, for a human being, is one of the most desperate of calamities, for it is only through language that we enter fully into our human estate and culture, communicate freely with our fellows, acquire and share information. If we cannot do this, we will be bizarrely disabled and cut off – whatever our desires, or endeavors, or native capacities.” (Sacks 1989, p 9)

Believed to be mentally defective, congenitally deaf people were thus denied basic human rights (access to education, marriage, inheritance of property, etc) until the middle of the 18th century and the pioneering work of the Abbé de l’Épée, founder of the first public school for the deaf in Paris in 1760.

One of the advantages for the local population was being able to communicate in more than one way, and it was used not only to be discreet (talking in church where silence was required, or telling the punch line of a dirty joke), but also had a beneficial aspect:

“Fishermen, hauling pots outside in the Sound or off Gay Head, when they would be heaven knows how far apart, would discuss how the luck was running-all that sort of thing. These men could talk and hear all right, but it’d be too far to yell.” (Groce, p 16)

People were able to switch freely between spoken language and sign, often preferring the latter since it was understood more by the local community and not by outsiders. Groce also mentions times when people would start off speaking and then slip in and out of sign almost unconsciously, as if things could be better expressed using the other method. This is something that I have come to recognize, speaking more than one language, since ideas can be better encapsulated using one or another language, terms or expressions that can be concisely conveyed in one language require a lot more explanation or definition in another. The crux of the matter is that there was no notion of ‘handicap’ or disability on Martha’s Vineyard, since as everyone could freely communicate in sign, the handicap had effectively been removed:

“the perception of a handicap, with its associated physical and social limitations, is tempered by the community in which it is found” (p 14)

This is obviously different in a wider population with lower frequency of deafness, where ‘handicapped’ individuals are forced to adapt to the greater community, who are not deaf and communicate verbally through speech. The point is not necessarily about ‘inclusion’ as such, but when a disability occurs at such a high rate of frequency, it requires being dealt with on a pragmatic level. As long as disability remains a minority issue, it will continue to be ignored or overlooked as a general issue that society needs to address. This forms the basis of the social constructionist argument, and Martha’s Vineyard provides an excellent and tangible example of full integration into a community of persons who would otherwise have been ostracized in the greater society.

“By 1817 (the year the American School for the Deaf was founded in Hartford, Connecticut), deaf individuals on Martha’s Vineyard had been actively participating in island society for well over a century. Because they were on an equal footing, both socially and economically, with the hearing members of the community, and because they held town offices, married, raised families, and left legal and personal documents, there must have existed some sort of sign language system that allowed full communication with family, friends, and neighbors.” (p 16)

Here the point is that the islanders had created a sign language that enabled them to communicate, rather than a signed version of an existing language. Sign language is a language in its own right. There is no universal sign language, since each community of deaf persons has evolved its own way of signing, but what was interesting for me to discover is that persons who understand sign language (even ASL standardized sign, which owes something to Martha’s Vineyard sign) cannot understand sign language used on TV, which is basically English translated into sign!

It is a common misconception that the Abbé de l’Épée devised sign language, whereas the language existed outside of his proposed (and limiting) signes méthodiques:

“de l’Epee was unaware, or could not believe, that sign language was a complete language, capable of expressing not only every emotion but every proposition and enabling its users to discuss any topic, concrete or abstract, as economically and effectively and grammatically as speech.”

Nevertheless, de l’Épée’s groundbreaking work was publically and lauded, his ideas exported, and within half a century the American Asylum for the Deaf was established in Hartford in 1817. Drawing on the French theories and incorporating indigenous sign language, in particular the vernacular from Martha’s Vineyard, American Sign Language (ASL) was developed. In the event, the deaf people who attended the Asylum returned with an education, setting them apart from the other islanders not because they were perceived as being handicapped, Sacks observes, but because they were regarded with esteem for their newly acquired wisdom (1989, p33).

Unfortunately, as Sacks laments, the Victorian era was one of “oppressiveness and conformism, intolerance of minorities, and minority usages, of every kind“, and with this came the decline of Sign and the new goal of teaching the deaf to speak orally. At the Milan International Congress of Educators of the Deaf in 1880, Sign use in schools was officially prohibited, and deaf pupils were thus denied the right to use their own natural means of communication – “in keeping with the spirit of the age, its overweening sense of science as power, of commanding nature and never deferring to it.” (p 27)

The last deaf person on the island died in 1952, but the islanders kept using Sign, often slipping into it unconsciously, even mid-sentence. Sacks suggests that Sign is far from the rudimentary and primitive method of communication many believe it to be, but rather ‘natural’ to those who learn it as their first language, “and has an intrinsic beauty and excellence sometimes superior to speech.” (1989, p 34)

At the end of this chapter, Sacks relates a touching anecdote about one of the islanders, a nonagenarian, who had a tendency to lapse into reverie and her hands would begin moving as if she were knitting:

“But her daughter, also a signer, told me she was not knitting but thinking to herself, thinking in Sign. And even in sleep, I was further informed, the old lady might sketch fragmentary signs on the counterpane – she was dreaming in Sign.” (p 35)

Sacks concludes by stating his conviction that Sign is a fundamental language of the brain and as such, deaf people being forced to learn the (to them) unnatural language of oral speech is oppressive and disabling.

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