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In the late 1600’s, an extended family from Weald, England settled on the island of Martha’s Vineyard in New England. The family carried a strong hereditary deafness gene, and as they married and intermarried, the rate of deaf people born on the island rose steadily. By the 1700’s almost everyone on the island had a deaf family member or two. Because of the high rate of deafness, the society on the island was completely different from mainstream, mainland society.
Mainland New England at this time was generally a terrible place for deaf people to live. Many people believed that deafness was a punishment from God. While the families of deaf children may have developed home signs, mainstream society could not understand these rudimentary signs, usually only good for expressing basic needs and requests, and different from home to home. Scholars debated about whether a deaf person could reason and learn like a hearing person. There were almost no career opportunities for deaf adults. The best they could hope for was to be trained to do manual labor for someone else’s business.
The prospects for deaf people on Martha’s Vineyard were completely different. Many of the former residents of the island were interviewed, and they paint an idyllic picture of what it was like to live in Martha’s Vineyard during this time. Because everyone had a deaf family member, everyone in the community knew sign language. Deaf people were farmers, store clerks, anything they wanted to be. Hearing people would sign to each other over the large expanses the island farms created, a deaf person could walk into a store and the clerk would always know sign. Deaf people were even elected to high political office, becoming mayors and council members for the island, a thing unheard of in the rest of the country. When telling stories about the community, the people who were being interviewed could only remember after much prompting if the people they were talking about were hearing or deaf.
The rare deaf/hearing equality experienced in Martha’s Vineyard is still remarkable today. In a society where hearing people are ignorant about deaf issues and can be very rude, a place like Martha’s Vineyard seems particularly wonderful. The equality that was shared by everyone, and the prejudices about deaf people that didn’t exist, make the little island community seem like the perfect place. Many deaf people consider it the ultimate utopia.
Ironically, the opening of the first deaf school in Hartford, Connecticut was a big reason why the hereditary deafness on the island petered out. Many deaf people from the island attended the school, met and married other deaf people who’s deafness wasn’t hereditary, and lived and had children near the school on the mainland of New England. As more and more of the population moved away, less and less deaf children were born on the island. In 1952, hereditary deafness died on the island with the death of Katie West. Though the community is gone today, it’s signs live on. Children attending the Hartford school mixed their signs in with the French Sign Language Laurent Clerc brought with him from Paris, creating much of the uniquely beautiful American Sign Language that exists today.