17 March 2012

Martha's Vineyard Sign Language (Sign without Stigma)

Image courtesy UCLAN
In honor of Deaf History Month (going on now through April 15th) here's a look back at a remarkable time in Deaf and American history when bilingualism was the norm and there was no stigmatization of d/Deaf people. Often touted as a deaf utopia of sorts, from the 17th century until the 1950s, Martha's Vineyard, a small island off the coast of Massachusetts, was a bilingual community with its own indigenous sign language (MVSL).  As Nora Groce titled her book on the subject, "Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language."

The case of the deaf community on Martha's Vineyard is remarkable for a number of reasons.

1. Size: At the time, Martha's Vineyard had a large deaf population due to a recessive gene prevalent on the island.  While the US deaf population average was 1 in 5728; on the island it was 1 in 155, in the town of Chillmark as high as 1 in 25.

2. Use of Sign by Hearing Community: Because the deafness on the island was due to a recessive gene, it usually occurred that immediate families contained both deaf and hearing members, so everyone on the island was exposed to MVSL, and virtually everyone was fluent.  And because everyone knew MVSL, it was used interchangeably with English by hearing people even when they were not in the presence of the deaf.  Sign language was used by the hearing to converse in quiet places, across long stretches of field instead of yelling, and just for general chats.

3. No Stigma Attached to Deafness:  Since everyone knew and used sign language, deafness was not viewed as a problem and caused no communication barriers.  Deafness was considered a normal and acceptable trait rather than a medical condition or disability.  Deaf people were fully integrated into society, and marriages between Deaf and hearing people were common.  Recently an article was released by Medical News Today suggesting that Deaf people are twice as likely to experience mental health issues.  While the statistic sounds frightening at first, there is a simple explanation stemming from the isolation and stigmatization that Deaf people are subject to in modern American society.  Deaf children are barred from signing so they can be taught to listening and speech (a false dichotomy in and of itself--would learning Spanish prevent someone from being able to learn English??).  And, even when students are sent to deaf schools and learn ASL, many families do not learn to sign along with their child, leaving deaf children unable to communicate even with their own parents.  It is unsurprising, then, that a person isolated from his family and unable to express his own thoughts and feelings would experience higher instances of health issues like depression.  The answer? Communication. Giving a child sign language, a comfortable and non-frustrating means of expressing himself, and learning to "listen" and "speak" sign back.

MVSL was influenced to a great degree by French Sign Language, then slowly overtaken by the new combination of the two-- ASL-- after the founding of the first American school for the deaf in Connecticut in 1817.  But the signing spirit seems to have lingered on the island as late as the 1980s; while doing research for his book Seeing Voices, Oliver Sacks is said to have seen a group of chatting elderly people switch quickly into sign language, then back to speech.

Currently there are two examples of communities today with high rates of genetic deafness and their own indigenous sign languages.  One is the Balinese village of Bengkala, in which villagers converse in Kata Kolok sign language.  The other is the sign language of the Al-Sayyid Bedouins in Israel.  In both cases, everyone knows the village sign, and hearing people use sign both with the deaf and with one another.  In both cases deafness is considered a normal part of life rather than a problem or deformation, and causes no isolation or educational issues within these close-knit communities.  It remains to be seen whether these signing communities will continue to flourish, or, like Martha's Vineyard, fade in the face of globalization, as deaf children are sent away to school to learn the standard sign languages of Indonesian or Israeli Sign Language, respectively.


  1. That was a very interesting story about Martha's Vineyard. I'm a Mass native and had never heard that history before. It seems there are two threads going. How do you encourage a broader use and understanding of sign language within a community and how do you shift society's view of deafness from disability to trait. Since, it isn't always a trait from birth and may be caused by external forces, is it harder for people to define?

    1. J- It's true, the fact that genetic deafness was so prevalent on Martha's Vineyard did make things easier in a sort of cyclical way-- hearing people knew many deaf people and so learned sign language to communicate with them, therefore learning that deaf people were no different from them, which in turn made it an even more mainstream/accepted trait. Hopefully a similar effect can be achieved if more people can about deafness and learn sign language, spurring on the same cycle. The key, like always, seems to be in education. Thanks for reading!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.