Deaf History on Martha’s Vineyard

Harris Communications B231 Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language
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If you could create a deaf utopia, what would it be like? Everyone would know how to communicate in sign language. Being deaf would be common enough that the general public would require no education. Martha's Vineyard was actually once such as place, and despite being a small island, played a very important role in deaf history.

Deaf Utopia Did Exist at One Time Off the Massachusetts Coast

Once upon a time, there was actually a place that could be considered a deaf utopia. It took place on an isolated island off the Massachusetts coast, the island known as Martha's Vineyard. While many people associate Martha's Vineyard with being the home of the great white sharks in the movie Jaws, the island was better known before that time as an island with a high deaf population. How did that come to be?

Some early Vineyard settlers carried a gene for deafness (the first known deaf settle was Jonathan Lambert, 1694), and over years of marriage, generation after generation of children lived with hearing loss. At one point, one in four children was born deaf! 

There were so many deaf people on the Vineyard (most deaf lived in Chilmark) that residents developed a sign language called Martha's Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL) or Chilmark Sign Language (which appears to have had its roots in County Kent in southern England. It's thought that MVSL played a role in the later development of  American Sign Language when residents from the Vineyard attended the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut.

Factors That Made Martha's Vineyard Unique

We know there have been other places in history in which a large percent of the population had hearing loss, so what made Martha's Vineyard so unique? Let's look at some of the background facts that led to this "deaf utopia."

High Deaf Population

Certainly, having a large number of people with hearing loss motivated the people of Martha's Vineyard to improve communication opportunities for those who are deaf. Some censuses taken of 19th century Vineyard population reveal the extent of deafness. In 1817, two families had deaf members, with a total of seven deaf. Just a few years later, by 1827 there were 11 deaf. The 1850 Chilmark census identified 17 deaf out of 141 households, in the Hammett, Lambert, Luce, Mayhew, Tilton, and West families. In 1855, it was 17 plus four in nearby Tisbury. The 1880 Chilmark census had 19 deaf in 159 households. New deaf families in the 1880 census included the Nobles and the Smiths. To put this into perspective, compared to the mainland U.S. where the frequency of deafness was 1 in almost 6,000, on the Vineyard it was as high as 1 in 155 (1 in 25 in Chilmark, and 1 in 4 in the Chilmark town of Squibnocket).

High Acceptance of Sign Language

Sign language was so accepted on the Vineyard that a newspaper marveled in 1895 at the way the spoken and signed languages were used so freely and easily by both deaf and hearing residents. People moving to Chilmark had to learn sign language in order to live in the community. Deafness was so common that some hearing residents actually thought it was a contagious disease.

Of note, is that deafness was never considered to be a handicap.

Longer Schooling

On the Vineyard, deaf children went to school for a longer period of time than hearing children, as the state provided funding for the schooling ​of deaf children. This actually led to a higher literacy rate among deaf students than hearing students.

Gradual Decline in Deaf Population

Intermarriages persisted and the deaf population of Chilmark and the rest of the Vineyard continued to propagate. It would have kept growing if not for the growth of deaf education on the mainland. As deaf Vineyard children attended schools off-island, they tended to settle off-island, married mainland mates, and gradually the deaf Vineyard population declined. The last deaf Vineyard native passed away in the 1950s.

Books and Other Resources

Deaf history and heritage, and especially the history of deaf society on Martha's Vineyard, has fascinated scholars. This interest resulted in the publication of the book: Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha's Vineyard. The book traces Vineyard deafness to an area of Britain's Kent County called the Weald. In addition, these other resources are available:

  • An undated (perhaps mid-1990s) 15-page research paper by Robert Mather and Linda McIntosh at Tufts University, "The Deaf of Martha's Vineyard." The bibliography cites two 1981 articles in the Duke's County Intelligencer, respectively titled "The Island's Hereditary Deaf: A Lesson in Human Understanding," and "Chilmark Deaf: Valued Citizens." Also included in the bibliography was an 1895 Boston Sunday Herald article, "Mark of Chilmark, Deaf, and Dumb in the Village of Squibnocket."
  • A six-page spring 2001 article, "A Silent Culture with a Strong Voice," from the Boston University alumni magazine, Bostonia. The article briefly mentions the efforts of an alumnus (Joan Poole Nash, now a deaf education teacher) to record on videotape examples of MVSL demonstrated by her great-grandmother and grandfather. 
  • In March 1999, Yankee magazine published the article, "The Island That Spoke by Hand."

Bottom Line on the Role of Martha's Vineyard in Deaf History

The combination of a large deaf population along with motivated citizens led to conditions which could be considered "deaf utopia" on Martha's Vineyard. Of note, is that the advances that occurred took place without technology to speak of and a relatively small number of people (compared to the population of the U.S. as a whole).

As seen with so many advances in deaf culture, the impact that single individuals and small groups of people can have in making lasting differences can be tremendous.

Perhaps, we need to look at the Martha's Vineyard example with many of the issues and concerns in our culture today. As noted above, hearing loss was never considered a handicap on Martha's Vineyard. It was not considered an "abnormality," but rather a normal variant of being human. Having everyone "speak the same language" reduced what might have otherwise been a "language barrier" and was of benefit to both those who were hearing and those who were deaf.

For those who are not deaf or hard of hearing and are not familiar with ASL, take a moment to learn about how to communicate with deaf and hard of hearing people to help reduce the "language barrier" today. You may also want to consider supporting one the of the deaf and hard of hearing organizations.

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