Enabling Technology


“Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language” by Nora Ellen Groce

What would society be like if we accepted those with disabilities readily? What if we even made such consistent efforts to include these individuals in everyday life that it became commonplace? Would having a disability still affect a person’s quality of life? Or, would the subtle deviations from “normal” fade into the background and promote an equal quality of life for all? This book, titled “Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language,” records the existence of such a society. The hereditary deafness found on Martha’s Vineyard resulted in an incredibly adapt community: one in which the hearing impaired and hearing residents were virtually indistinguishable. The author, Nora Groce, conducted research on the island, attempting to trace the origins of the deafness as well as the effects on and reactions of the community through the oral tradition recounted by the islanders.

Martha’s Vineyard is the largest island off the coast of New England. Bartholomew Gosnold landed on one of the neighboring islands and named it “Martha’s Vineyard” after one of his daughters; the name was eventually transferred to the island we now know as Martha’s Vineyard because of its larger size. Martha’s Vineyard is ten miles across from North to South, and 24 miles across from East to West. It had formerly been inhabited solely by Indians for 4,000 years prior to English settlement. In 1641, Thomas Mayhew purchased the rights to Martha’s Vineyard. Along with 65 other colonists, he established Olde Town, also known as Edgartown, which became a comfortable settlement because of its fertile farming soil. In order to end power struggles, Martha’s Vineyard joined the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1691. Population increased slowly due to its inaccessibility from mainland (only one boat per day) and self-sufficiency. Growing birth rates began to accelerate the population increase by 1710: the population increased from 400 in 1700 to 3,100 in 1800.

The gene that causes deafness is a recessive trait. Thus, more than one islander must have been a carrier of the recessive genetic mutation. However, Mendel???s hereditary theory was not well known until after the early 1900s, causing the islanders to come up with other explanations for the impairment. Some said that a hearing impairment was the will of God, some described it as retribution for a father???s sins, and still others claimed it was the result of fright during pregnancy. Alexander Graham Bell attributed deafness to the layer of clay that surrounded Chilmark, where deafness was particularly common.

In 1883, Alexander Graham Bell followed his invention of the telephone with a study of deafness. At the time, he was a professor at Boston University and active in promoting American deaf education. He had decided to investigate the cause of deafness. His research led him to the examination of the genealogy of the New Englanders who suffered deafness at the time. In addition to his discovery that Martha’s Vineyard had the greatest ratio of deaf individuals, he found that other New Englanders who were deaf were often related in some way to former Vineyarders. Unfortunately, Bell failed to explain why two hearing parents sometimes had a child who was deaf. Thus, he abandoned his study. His notes and findings, though unpublished, were integral in the confirmation of Ms. Groce???s study.

The book follows the history of deafness on Martha’s Vineyard, particularly in Chilmark and West Tisbury. Martha’s Vineyard had a high rate of hereditary deafness for over two hundred years, beginning with Jonathan Lambert and ending in 1952. The original settlers of Martha’s Vineyard were from the English county, Kent. Per tradition, these settlers would form small communities of ten to twelve families. Preference was given to marriages that occurred within the community, a marriage pattern called endogamous deme. If a community decided to move, they would migrate as a group. Thus, these islanders formed a very supportive and tight-knit community but with a great deal of inbreeding. In fact, within only a few generations, everyone was inter-related. By late 1700s, 96% of residents married a relative.

Some areas of Martha’s Vineyard were far more isolated than others: particularly Tisbury and Chilmark. It was quite common to marry cousins in these areas. Within these secluded communities, the ratio of individuals who were hearing impaired was larger, with a peak in the 1840s at 45 cases across the island. In its history on Martha’s Vineyard, deafness does not appear to be gender influenced, but rather equally distributed with regard to gender. There were 29 cases of deafness in males and 34 cases of deafness in females, with 9 cases in which gender was unidentified. Furthermore, one of the mysteries that stumped Bell and the islanders was the fact that 85% of deaf children were born to hearing parents. We now know that a recessive gene and frequent inter-marriages must have been the root of the high number of deaf residents on Martha’s Vineyard.

The average occurrence rate of deafness on Martha’s Vineyard far exceeded national averages. In the 19th century, 1/5,728 American was born deaf; however, on Martha’s Vineyard, the ratio was 1/155. Groce???s research revealed at minimum seventy-two deaf persons born on the island in only three centuries. Deafness appeared in certain families on the island but not in others. Its frequency dissolves the theory of deafness caused by disease or injury. Most significantly, deafness only appeared in families in which both parents descended from Vineyard families. As further proof of its heredity nature, in the 300 years of settlement on Martha’s Vineyard, deafness only appeared once in the case where one parent came from a family off of the island.

Typically, a deaf person?s problem challenge not in the inability to hear, but rather that the inability to hear is ???socially isolating.? Hearing people find it difficult, even impossible, to communicate with a person who has a hearing impairment due to a lack of fluency in sign language. However, Martha’s Vineyard was extremely unique in that the residents who were deaf were completely integrated into the community. The hearing residents were bilingual in sign and English. Thus, communication was possible between all residents, bridging the gap between hearing residents and those that were deaf. Profound deafness simply was not looked upon as a handicap. Groce claims that, “a handicap is defined by the community in which it appears.” The Vineyarders that were deaf were active participants in island life: they certainly were not regarded as handicapped.

Ms. Groce investigated deafness on Martha’s Vineyard primarily by interviewing islanders as a result of poor written records. Fortunately, the oral tradition of record keeping on Martha’s Vineyard is extremely strong, since many of the same families have lived on the island for centuries. She later was able to confirm the names and dates she’d collected with Bell’s study notes.

In these interviews, Ms. Groce found that the classification of “deaf and dumb” was often an afterthought. Notice of one’s inability to hear was not common on the island. Comments such as, “I didn???t think about the deaf any more than you’d think about anybody with a different voice” illustrate the integration of the hearing impaired in the community on Martha’s Vineyard. Because people spoke both English and sign language, deaf individuals were not at a disadvantage. In fact, many hearing residents continued to hold conversations in sign even while not in the presence of an individual who was deaf. Children even used sign to talk to one another across their classrooms. Many hearing impaired individuals were influential and successful within the island community.

In the early 1800s, residential schools began to play an integral role in the education of young New Englanders as well as the decline of hereditary deafness on Martha’s Vineyard. In addition, transportation between Martha’s Vineyard and the mainland became more reliable. An influx of vacationers started to visit the island during the summers, and islanders they formed relationships with mates from off-island communities. The magnitude of inter-marriage declined, taking with it the high probability of two partners both carrying a recessive gene. The island still maintains a very inclusive and positive outlook on individuals who suffer from a hearing impairment. However, the decline in the number of deaf individuals on the island caused the use of sign language as a common method of communication to also decline. Some of the older residents on Martha’s Vineyard still recall a time when everyone spoke sign language. Some younger residents have even learned some basic signs from their parents. However, there is no longer a demand to hold every conversation in both sign and English.

Martha’s Vineyard is an incredibly unique society. In response to a large number of people who suffered a hearing impairment, the society adapted rather than expecting the individuals to change. While mainland areas where deafness was relatively uncommon developed a negative and degrading attitude toward those that were unable to hear, Martha’s Vineyard simply began to develop to include those with profound deafness. As a result, the hearing impaired individuals on Martha’s Vineyard maintained a high quality of life and community involvement. Instead of being afraid of a disability that they were unable to comprehend fully, they simply addressed their needs in daily living with the integration of sign language.

I found “Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language” to be an inspiring book to read. It left me feeling very hopeful in humankind. It certainly made me want to encourage integration of those with disabilities into everyday life!