This week (September 19th - 25th), the World Federation of Deaf People celebrates International Week of Deaf People 2022. Today, September 23rd, 2022, also celebrates the International Day of Sign Languages 2022.
What would the world be like if everyone knew sign language? This seems like a question we can only speculate about, but ethnohistorian Nora Ellen Groce found a way to study it. Groce used interviews and historical documents to research a place where everyone did know a form of sign language: 1800s Martha’s Vineyard. She shared her findings in her book Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language. This article will summarize Groce’s findings and then discuss what this tells us about the nature of deafness and disability.
Deafness on historic Martha’s Vineyard
Martha’s Vineyard is an island off the coast of Massachusetts. In the 1800s, Martha’s Vineyard was home to a substantial population of deaf people. This was due to the fact that an unusually large percentage of immigrants with genetic deafness. Future generations then passed on this trait. Groce estimated that around 10 percent of the population of Martha’s Vineyard was deaf.
Groce found another important statistic: everyone knew sign language, regardless of whether they were deaf or had a deaf relative. There may have been some vocabulary that made its way into ASL from the sign language used on Martha's Vineyard, but this was a different language than American Sign Language (ASL). Groce even found that hearing people sometimes used sign language when there were no deaf people present for various other reasons, such as communication between boats.
The deaf experience on historic Martha’s Vineyard
Around the end of the nineteenth century, the high percentage of deafness on Martha’s Vineyard waned due to increasing contact with the mainland, as did the use of sign language. Groce could find older people still living on the island who could tell her about the period when everyone knew sign language. The hearing people Groce interviewed reported that the deaf people living on the island were not considered disabled, just different.
Deaf people were also fully integrated into the community of Martha’s Vineyard. Groce learned this through her interviews. But she also found it through written records. Most deaf Americans marry another deaf person. Deaf people on Martha’s Vineyard frequently married hearing people. They were also full participants in the island’s economy, whereas deaf people often face employment discrimination in the US.
A social model of disability
Groce’s findings support the social model of disability. Social models suggest that a person's social environment determines disability as much as their differences.
It’s not as though the people on Martha’s Vineyard had no concept of disability. In fact, the people that Groce interviewed did sometimes use offensive language about people with other disabilities. Deaf people in Martha’s Vineyard lived in an environment where the main challenge other deaf people experience, communication, did not exist. And so, it was as if they were not disabled in that time and place.
As the island intermixed more with the mainland, the percentage of deaf people on the island decreased. The sign language on Martha’s Vineyard might have influenced some ASL signs as deaf children on the island went to deaf schools, but that remains speculative. Hearing people on the island no longer universally know how to sign.
Whether or not someone is disabled is not just about their body; it is about the social environment around them. To ensure everyone can flourish, we need to consider changing the environment to allow them access to what they need. An additional lesson learned from this case study is that language access is a powerful thing.