Martha’s Vineyard: A History of Deaf Equality on a Little Island
A Guest post by T.L. Council
The modern day incarnation of Martha’s Vineyard as a tourist resort is vastly different than what it originally was. From its earliest days, it was just a small, isolated village, filled with a friendly and vibrant people. The Vineyard is situated on Nantucket, a small island off the southern coast of Massachusetts. It was populated by English immigrants in the mid-17th century during a time when British settlement was going full force. What most people don’t know is that Martha’s Vineyard was a relatively isolated area, and that over time, the population could trace its origins to just a few families from a remote area of England. That isn’t even the most interesting aspect of the settlement, though. The greatest gift that Martha’s Vineyard has given the world is the fact that about one-half of the population was deaf until the mid-20th century. Why is this a gift to the world? It’s a simple reason, really. The inhabitants of this little hamlet could teach us modern folks a
thing or two about how we treat those who are deaf and hard of hearing. In Martha’s Vineyard, the deaf were considered equals, not second-class citizens, as many hearing-impaired people today feel.
In 1985 Nora Groce published one of the most vivid and telling histories of the Vineyard. Her book, “Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language,” tells the story of the islanders, and how their culture evolved after settling the island. The language of the inhabitants in this small community was unlike any other that existed anywhere else. It was a mixture of spoken words, sign language, and gestures that created a fluid way of communicating. No one considered deafness a disability, which is contrary to how deafness has historically been viewed throughout the world. In fact, deafness didn’t even factor into the islanders’ treatment of their deaf neighbors.
Since the first deaf individual on the island was recorded in the town roster in 1738, the deaf population soared. Jonathan Lambert, who was the first deaf person on the island, had two children who were deaf. Intermarriage between first and second cousins was so widely accepted that by the time the 20th century rolled around, most inhabitants were somehow related to one another. Lambert’s own sister married her first cousin and gave birth to seven children. Of those seven, three were deaf.
As the deaf population grew on the island, people naturally picked up sign language. What’s interesting about this is that the attitude towards deafness was so profoundly different than what we’re used to seeing. Think about it. When you see two deaf individuals speaking together in sign language, how does that make you feel? Do you stare? Are you mesmerized? Are you even remotely disgusted? Some deaf grunt and make noises when they talk to each other because they obviously can’t hear themselves. In 2012, amazingly, there are still some people who believe that deaf individuals shouldn’t be permitted to drive. But 200 years ago at Martha’s Vineyard, there existed an egalitarian society where deafness was not only accepted, but embraced as nothing more than a genetic quirk, like the shape of your eyebrows, or hair color.
A common denominator between the geography of Martha’s Vineyard and the islanders’ origins is that both were isolated areas. The Kentish Weald, in Kent, England, was a remote area in the 16th and 17th centuries with an isolated gene pool. Those limited genes were passed on to the inhabitants of Martha’s Vineyard for the next few centuries with very few new genetic variations introduced. So, naturally, deafness become common, as families often found themselves with a high number of deaf children. If two hearing people were talking together, they often shifted fluidly between the spoken word and sign language out of habit. No one had to remember to include a deaf individual in a conversation because everyone knew how to communicate with one another.
In schools, hearing and deaf children alike learned how to read, write and perform arithmetic. No one was exempted from learning how to read because of poor hearing, and no one was given a pass on difficult subjects based on whether or not they could hear. This is drastically different than what deaf school children experience today, as many adults who attended deaf schools, and even mainstream schools, possess poor literacy, can barely spell, and often have little, if any, knowledge of American or world history.
In some states, deaf education teachers often don’t even know sign language, and so their students either get their information second hand from an interpreter or in some other way. If deaf kids are a part of a mainstream classroom where they’re the only hearing-impaired student in class, they can often fall behind their classmates because they need more time to communicate the instructor.
What can Martha’s Vineyard teach us, as a society? What can it teach us as educators and parents? There’s always been a bit of controversy over the use of sign language among the deaf, but it truly is the best way for them to communicate and learn.
In the early 20th century, inhabitants who ventured off the island were often taken by surprise at the negative attitudes the Deaf on the Mainland experienced. They simply couldn’t fathom why someone with hearing loss would be treated any differently than a person with perfect hearing would. Their culture was ingrained with the idea that deafness was not an issue. However, by the time Nora Groce wrote her groundbreaking book in 1985, most of the native residents had moved off the island and the distinct blend of sign language and English has nearly been forgotten. The early inhabitants of Martha’s Vineyard proves that the deaf are not disabled. They are simply labeled that by mainstream society because of their difference in communication.
T.L. Council is a late-deafened adult who is also experienced in working with the Deaf. She is a published author and has written numerous articles about deafness, hearing loss, and civil rights issues. She also contributes to Degree Jungle, a resource for college students.