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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.


ndrew Foster was born in 1925 in Ensley, Alabama where racism was at it’s strongest.  His father was a coal miner and the family had very little economic opportunity.  When he was 11 years old, Andrew and his brother both contracted Spinal Meningitis and became Deaf.  The family did what they could to send the boys to the Alabama School for Colored Deaf in Talladega, but their education wasn’t very good.  When Andrew was 16, the family moved into his Aunt’s house so the boys could get a better education.  Andrew finished high school at the Michigan School for the Deaf.

The family was deeply religious and attended church services every Sunday.  It was in Sunday School that Andrew realized his true calling.  A missionary from Jamaica came to the school one weekend and gave a talk about his work in Africa.  Andrew was extremely interested in the man’s experiences and felt that it was his calling in life to become a missionary in Africa too.  If he was to succeed, Andrew also knew he would need a lot of education.  He wrote to Gallaudet College and they accepted him on a full scholarship.  He was the first black student to ever have been accepted at Gallaudet; four years later he became the first black, deaf graduate of Gallaudet in 1954.  He then went on to accieve two Master’s degrees.

Then came the hard part.  Andrew visited every mission he could think of, but in spite of his thorough education they would not accept him as a missionary because of his race.  Instead, Andrew finally started his own mission.  He flew to Liberia for the first time in 1957.  What he saw there was extremely upsetting.  The other missionaries he was in contact with told him that deaf people didn’t exist in Africa at all, but eventually Andrew found them.  Many people thought that deafness was a sign that a person was cursed, so parents were forced to hide their children.  Deaf children who weren’t hidden were frequently left in the wilderness to be eaten by animals.   There was absolutely no education available, and most Africans believed that the deaf were unable to be educated.  The best a deaf person in Africa could hope for was to become a family’s servant, using rudimentary signs for basic communication.  Andrew knew he had to do everything he could to change the fate of African deafs.

Andrew heard about a community in Ghana with a high rate of hereditary deafness, much like Martha’s Vineyard in the United States.  Figuring that he could make an impact quickly in this community, he traveled to Ghana and used the regular school facilities to teach deaf students after hours.  Within no time at all, he had 300 families from all over Africa requesting that he teach their children as well.  The borrowed facilities were no longer enough.  Andrew flew back to the United States to raise money for a permanent boarding school to be built.  A year later, the first school for the deaf in Africa opened in Nigeria.

Andrew faithfully promoted his new schools everywhere he could.  It was at the Third World Congress for the Deaf that he met the love of his life, a German deaf woman named Berta.  She felt just as strongly about Andrew’s mission as he did.  They were married in Nigeria in 1961, and worked together to establish more schools across Africa.  In addition to the schools, they also established deaf Churches, Sunday Schools, Youth Camps, and Teacher Training facilities.  The two also had five children, 4 boys and 1 girl.

Sadly, in 1975 Berta was diagnosed with terminal Cancer.  Although their worst fears weren’t realized (she is still alive and well today), Berta felt that she could not keep up with their nomadic life in Africa any longer.  She and the children moved back to the United States.  Andrew still felt that he had not finished his work in Africa.  He decided to split his time, spending half of the year in America with his family and the other half of the year in Africa establishing more schools and churches.  In 1970, Gallaudet University honored Andrew with an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters.

In 1987, Andrew was on a small plane traveling between schools when the plane crashed in the hills of Rwanda.  There were 11 people on board the flight and none of them survived; Andrew was 62 years old.   As one of his students, Gabriel Adepoju, said, “Andrew Foster is to Africa what Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet is to the United States of America.”  Andrew established 31 schools in over 17 African countries.  The mission he started is still going strong, and his legacy lives on in the tens of thousands of deaf Africans who are now literate and living good lives thanks to his lifelong effort on their behalf.


ASLSeeing Voices is a book about Deaf issues, mostly pertaining to language learning, written from a hearing perspective.   Deaf issues have changed a lot since the 1980’s when this book was written, but one can’t help but wonder if it’s the changes in time or the fact that Sacks has no personal knowledge of deafness that make his issues seem a little off.  In the opening of the book, Sacks admits that he doesn’t know any sign language nor has he ever participated in Deaf Culture.  He also states that he feels this makes him a more impartial observer than others who have come before him.  While this might be true, it also creates a situation where he speaks of Deaf people as though they are their condition and not as though they’re every day people like anyone else.  That being said, Sacks has written a really interesting book.  His discoveries about learning language, his stories of famous historical figures, and his first hand experiences at the Gallaudet University “Deaf President Now” rally are especially great.

Sacks has done a lot of research into other people’s studies on learning language.  From the conclusions of these studies and also his own experiences with Deaf people born that way and people deafened later in life, he holds to the Critical Age Theory.  This theory states that there is a critical age at which people must learn language of some sort (usually before puberty) or they will forever be unable to learn language.  They may be able to say words and things to indicate their basic needs, but they will never be able to use language to express thoughts and feelings.  Sacks shows that by keeping Sign Language away from Deaf children we are not helping them function better in a hearing world, we are only keeping them from being able to think and reason completely.  He tells us that the longer a person is without language, the less their brain will be able to function.  While I think his insistence that sign is fundamentally important for the well being of Deaf adults is compelling and well argued, his implications that Deaf people have somehow been made less smart than hearing people by their prohibition of signing is incorrect and misleading.  I haven’t circulated a lot in the Deaf Culture in my area, but I have met many Deaf people and have felt that, if anything, they are smarter, joyous and more self assured than many hearing people I have met. 

Laurent Clerc plays a large roll in the first part of the book, as do other historical figures such as the wild boy of Avignon, and Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet.  Many of the stories Sacks tells about these famous characters are stories I hadn’t heard before.  Laurent Clerc’s teacher Massoud, rarely mentioned in accounts I have read of Clerc’s life,  is featured in the book as well.  Stories of Massoud’s personality and touring of Europe, and Clerc’s writings and touring of America are extremely interesting.  It was nice to delve a little deeper into the lives of people I hear mentioned, but know very little about.

Sacks was on the campus of Gallaudet University in 1988 to personally witness the “Deaf President Now” rallys.  The picture he paints of the atmosphere on campus and the beautiful fervent signing of the student leaders makes you feel like you’re there.  This was another important moment in Deaf history that I hear a lot about but feel I don’t really know.  The Woodstock atmosphere and the relitively peaceful insistence of the students about their demands is the exact opposite of what I had imagined.  My picture was more of an angry, week-long riot.  I think it speaks volumes that the Deaf community didn’t try to storm the gates and overthrow anyone in violence.  They simply didn’t budge until they got their way.  The third section, where the Gallaudet rally is depicted, is the best of the sections.  Sacks writes about Deaf people as people in this section, instead of  medical conditions.   In this chapter he talks about how intranced he became about Deaf Culture and how he has started to learn Sign Language.

Sacks’ observations about language and language acquisition are profound and important.  The conclusions he reaches about the neccesity of language for humans greatly bolsters the argument for sign language being taught to the Deaf.  With the exception of the last chapter accounting Sacks’ experiences at Gallaudet, this book is more about language learning as it pertains to deafness, and not about Deaf people or Deaf Culture.   I would reccomend the book to people with an interest in language, but there are way better books out there on Deaf Culture, several of which are written by the difinitive experts on the subject, Deaf people themselves.

Gallaudet Statue

ASLAlice Cogswell was born in 1805.  Her father was Dr. Mason Cogswell, a famous physician who had performed the first surgery to remove cataracts from eyes.  At the age of two, Alice came down with “Spotted Fever”, now thought to be either Measles or Menengitis, and lost all of her hearing.  In that day, it was commonly thought that because deaf people couldn’t speak, they could neither think nor reason.  Some people even believed that deafness was a curse for bad behavior, or that the deaf person was possesed with evil spirits.  Dr. Cogswell was extremely fond of Alice, and was saddened that he could no longer communicate with his daughter.  She lived the early part of her life in silence, observing others from the outskirts.  Her brothers and sisters didn’t try to communicate with her, because they thought her no longer capable.

When Alice was nine, her new next door neighbor, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, noticed that she wasn’t playing with the other children, but sat by herself outside.  He went out to discover why, and the other children told him that Alice was deaf.  Gallaudet decided to spend some time with her to cheer her up anyway, and they spent a while drawing pictures in the dust.  Gallaudet was struck by how smart Alice was and he imediately began to teach Alice to read and write, completely knocking down many of the stereotypes about deaf people.  It was slow going, because Gallaudet didn’t know how to teach a deaf student.  He had to go by trial and error, and some of the methods he tried didn’t work at all.  After a few years, Alice’s father spoke with Gallaudet about founding a school for the deaf in America.  Dr. Cogswell and several other prominent men in town realized that there were over fourty children in their state that were deaf, and surmised that in other states there was also a large number of deaf children who would benefit from a deaf school.  They suggested that Gallaudet travel to Europe, where there were tons of schools focusing specifically on deaf education, and learn about teaching deaf students.  He could then come back and found a school for the deaf that would be highly successful. 

While Gallaudet was away in Europe, Alice had learned to read and write enough to attend a regular hearing school with her sister, although this situation wasn’t ideal.  When the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons, later renamed the American School for the Deaf, was founded by Thomas Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc, Alice was the first pupil to sign up.  It’s believed that she was the first person in America to ever be taught the manual finger spelled alphabet.  Alice loved attending the school.  She graduated in 1824, and then spent the next few years traveling extensively. 

Alice was a very lively girl.  She loved to read, sew, dance, and especially loved it when her parents threw parties.  Many people remember how she would frequently mimic others so perfectly that she would set everyone laughing for hours.  Alice was especially curious about music, and spent a long time trying to understand it as best she could.  The year she turned 25, Dr. Cogswell died.  Alice was incredibly upset.  She died 13 days later, many say of a broken heart.  Alice was greatly responsible for the birth of Deaf Culture in the United States.  She broke down a lot of stereotypes and allowed hearing people to realize just how smart deaf people are.  Several statues have been erected in her honor, one on the Gallaudet University campus, one on the American School campus, and one in Hartford Connecticut.


asljohn Brewster was a famous deaf American.  I’m going to be putting several of these little bios up because I think it’s just so interesting how people lived and made a name for themselves, hearing and deaf alike.  As this is an American Sign Language blog, these people will all be somehow connected with ASL (I know, it’s a novel concept.)  I’m starting with John Brewster because he was there at the start, and if anyone has any ideas for other deaf ASL speakers, I would love to have input on who to profile next.

brewsterfrancis brewsterdrmrs breswterrevmarrett brewstermotherson

John Brewster Jr. was the grandson of William Brewster, of pilgrim fame, and was the only deaf person in his family.  John was born deaf in the year 1766, and probably learned to communicate with his family through “Home Signs”, or signs that have been made up by imediate family and don’t translate to outsiders.  His father was a well-known and important physician in his home town, and education was highly emphasized at home.  Most of John’s brothers went to medical school like their father.  Because John couldn’t go to medical school, he was apprenticed to a famous painter named Joseph Steward, where he learned to paint Folk style portraits.  Because John didn’t read or write at this point in time, we don’t really have much record of what he did or how he felt about it, but we can guess.

In the late 1700s- early 18oos, there was a vast network of painters who would roam the countryside and paint likenesses of the upper middle class, the rich, and their families.  Because these painters often hadn’t been to formal art schools, they charged a lot less for their paintings than portrait painters in Europe did.  While these paintings weren’t exact realistic copies of everyday life, they served to give people a stylistic snapshot of their family before the snapshot was invented.  There was an actual circuit that many painters traveled, visiting the same towns and staying in the same hotels.  While we know that John traveled this circuit a little bit, generally he preferred to stay in the familiar territory of Southern Maine and Massachusetts. 

As soon as John gained a little notoriety, he began to be commissioned to paint the likenesses of certain families.  He would stay with that family for a few days, paint everyone in the house, and run an advertisement in the local paper to attract more clientele while he was in town.  Sometimes, instead of staying with the family he was painting, John would stay with friends in the same area.  It’s thought that his friends would write the advertisements out for him and deliver them to the local paper, because John couldn’t write, and the advertisements were frequently inconsistent.  Sometimes they touted John as a deaf curiosity – his paintings are so great that you would never believe he was deaf.  Other times there’s no mention of his deafness at all, but only the quality of his work.  It’s thought that he used some combination of limited writing and pantomime to work out with his clients the poses they wanted and his fees.  We know by the sheer volume of clients and his growing local fame that he had no insurmountable problems communicating with the people he painted.   

John was considered one of the top painters in New England at this time, and his paintings read like a who’s who of the region for four decades.  Many of his paintings show unrealistic perspectives, with children being taller than trees and mountains in the background and other scenes not appearing quite right.  Whether this was by design or not, we can’t tell.  He was very well known for painting wild-haired children in gauzy nightgowns with serious expressions, but also painted many somber men and women in dark clothing.   We know that he would do smaller paintings of people from the chest up for a smaller fee, and it’s believed that at one point he painted canvases of a bunch of bodies without heads and then added the heads of his clients to the pre-painted picture for an even smaller fee.  These chest-up paintings are some of John’s best work, as there are no odd perspectives, and his ability to paint expressions is impressive.

In 1817, the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons, later known as the American School for the Deaf, opened in Hartford Connecticut.  Among the seven students in the first class was John Brewster.  The average age of the other students was 19, while John was 51.  For the first time in his life, John learned to read and write, and also to communicate in sign language with other deaf people.  He finally got the education that was so important to his family.  John stayed several years at the school, longer than the actual course he took, and we assume by this that he was enjoying being in a community of people he could communicate with.  When John left the school in 1820, he didn’t keep in touch with anyone he met at school.  While this may seem strange, he probably didn’t really have a lot in common with the other students who were so much younger than he was.  John went right back into the hearing world and continued painting as he had before.  His paintings after he attended the school seem to have a greater emphasis on the eyes of the sitter, and less attention is given to the background. 

1n 1837, the Daguerreotype was invented and many folk painters lost their source of income.  Photos were less expensive and more realistic than portraiture ever could be.  Like so many artists of the time, John found it harder and harder to find clients.  In the late 1830s, John moved in with his brother and best friend in Buxton, Maine, where all record of his life ends.  We do know he spent the rest of his life in a family home surrounded by nieces and nephews.  John died in 1854, and is buried in Buxton.

John Brewster lived most of his life in a hearing world with no structured way to communicate with those around him, even other deaf people.  Though his life must have been hard at times, he left behind hundreds of beautiful paintings that show us how his intelligence and attention to detail made him great.

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