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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.
went to Orientation at my school yesterday. I was extremely cranky that they made transfer students attend, and even more cranky when I realized that I had to sit through two hours of information I already knew. At least the counselor leading it was entertaining. They gave us a bunch of cool stuff, too. One of those neat little booklets is labeled “Student Handbook and Calendar”. Inside, it includes a number of useful things, like a list of commonly misspelled words, the periodic table of elements, and a map of the human skeleton. It also has a little segment on ASL. I thought the things they chose to include were quite hilarious.
Of course the manual alphabet is there, and there is also useful information about eye contact, signing space, and time indicators. They also include the signs for “Mother” and “Father”, because I’m going to need those two signs desperately when trying to communicate with Deaf people… or not really. In truth, wouldn’t “Name” and “Nice to meet you” be better? I use those two every time I meet someone new, and it would be spreading politeness. Another thing I didn’t like was their information on classifiers is all wrong. They tell me that the classifier for “car” really means “3 cars”. I’d like to smack a y-handshape to my chin to them for that, because they’re definitely wrong.
I would also like to quote the “What is ASL” segment from the handbook. They try to be diplomatic and give a short history of ASL, but a history without Laurent Clerc and Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet is horribly ridden with holes at best, and this comes off as just really confusing:
Throughout history, the Deaf have been persecuted for being different. For centuries the Deaf struggled to form a visual language, and even then they were not always allowed to use it. This has changed in the recent past. In the 1800s, American schools were developed to allow the Deaf to pursue and education and participate in society. One important figure in this effort, Edward Gallaudet, became principal of a Washington, DC, school for the Deaf, now know as Gallaudet University. In the 1950s, William Stokoe was hired by Gallaudet University to teach English Literature, and by teaching the Deaf, he discovered and proved that ASL is its own language. In 1960 he published American Sign Language Structure, and in 1965 the Dictionary of American Sign Language. His work has been important in restoring and affirming the existence of Deaf Culture. Today, ASL is the fourth most commonly used language in the United States and Canada.
This paragraph makes it sound like Deaf people pulled ASL out of their nether regions, and suddenly everyone started using it. I would even go so far as to say it accidentally perpetuates the myths that ASL is universal and based on pantomime. Well… at least they’re trying, right? (sigh)
I may sound judgemental about this whole little ASL segment, but really I’m just laughing. I feel like this isn’t so bad that it’s insulting or damaging in some way, I just feel like their mistakes are so hopelessly silly. Ah the bastardizations that arise when people have little idea what they’re talking about…
SL storytelling is an amazing art, and so much fun to watch. One of the most popular kinds of stories is the ABC story. This is where the signer tells a story about any subject at all, except they use words starting with specific hand shapes. The first word has to use the “a” hand shape, and the second “b”, until all letters of the alphabet are used. The letters have to be used in order, and no other hand shapes may be interspersed between them. If it’s a really good ABC story, you shouldn’t realize that you’re watching an ABC story at all. There are so many good examples on the web, it’s really fun to take an afternoon and peruse through the youtube videos.
A lot of students are assigned to make an ABC story to share in class. Most of them talk about how hard it is, and I can tell you that it’s so true. When I saw a great example of an ABC story done by an ASL 2 student, I decided to try my hand at it. After all, if she could do it so can I, right? It turns out that it’s not that easy. I keep getting stuck at “e”. I don’t know if it’s my skimpy ASL 2 vocabulary that’s making it harder or what, but I’m going to have to work hard to complete it. It’s been a day and a half, and I only have up to “F”. “G” has been another really hard hand shape for me. I’m going to stick to it, though, until I do something amazing. Or kind of passable. I just found my video camera, so I’ll post it here when I’m done along with the English transcript.
Since I’ve been out of class, I’ve been reading a lot of books on Deaf Culture. It’s been such a wonderful experience. If I thought I was in love with Deaf Culture before, now I’m hooked in so much deeper. The rich tradition of storytelling makes me want to open my arms to the world and express what’s inside me. It seems so much easier to do in ASL than in English. I can’t wait to pick up more language so I can participate more fully. ABC stories are just where I’m starting. It’s going to be fun.
K, I admit it. I fingerspell when driving. Sometimes I’m so involved in fingerspelling that I don’t realize that my car is no longer driving completely straight in my lane. I always correct myself quickly, and no harm has ever come from this silly habit except for some mild embarrassment on my part. I used to like to do the license plates because then I can practice both my letters and my numbers at the same time, but I don’t do that anymore.
It dawned on my recently that this solution of signing license plates isn’t very practical. By signing the letters on a license plate, I’m learning how to think quickly when making the letters or numbers, but I’m not learning to spell actual words and my hands aren’t getting accustomed to switching between common letter combinations. So I’ve come up with a different solution.
I googled”Most Popular American Names”, and I came up with a list of both last names and first names, and how often they’re used. Not only did I learn that “Mary” is the most popular name for a woman in America, but I also get to practice actual names in context. It also has the added benefit of being something I can use later when (and if) I’m interpreting. I figure I’m going to have to fingerspell a lot of names, and if I can already do the top 200 American Names quickly, I’ll be good to go for real life situations. I carry the lists with me, and I practice whenever I have down time. Sometimes people look at me strangely like I’m talking to myself or something (OK, maybe it’s because I am), but I consider that a casualty of learning to speak fluent ASL.
As a side benefit, it’s also improved my driving habits.