What constitutes a disability? Most of us would say it’s the lack of one or more physical powers. But perhaps “disability” is a subjective term. Perhaps it is more dependent on society than on the individual.

For more than two hundred and fifty years, the population of Martha’s Vineyard experienced a phenomenal incidence of congenital deafness. In the nineteenth century, and probably before then, the incidence was more than thirty-five times the national average.

Gay Head, Martha's Vineyard

How did they cope with such an onslaught of disabled persons? Did they build separate schools and separate institutions for those who couldn’t hear? Nope. They treated deafness as something perfectly normal because for them it was. Even those who didn’t have deaf relatives knew many deaf people, so everybody learned sign language. Deaf residents were included in every aspect of life. Deaf children attended the same schools and the same classes as hearing students because the teachers and hearing students could sign. Deaf and hearing people intermarried freely because there were no communication barriers. The deaf were expected to contribute to society and support their families just like everybody else. And they did.

In addition, the hearing residents of the island discovered certain advantages to sign language. The major occupation of the time was fishing. In the days before radio, ship-to-ship communication was challenging unless you could sign, in which case all you needed was a clear line of sight.

In 1985, a woman in her eighties summed up best the status of deaf individuals on the island: “Oh, those people weren’t handicapped. They were just deaf.”1

How did this situation occur? Prior to the late nineteenth century, Martha’s Vineyard was a genetic isolate. Immigration virtually ceased after 1710. Among the resident population, marriages between second- and third- cousins was common. This allowed the spreading of recessive genes, including one for deafness. Most of the families who settled in the town of Chilmark, where most of the deaf people resided, immigrated from the same region of Kent in England. There is evidence of a high rate of deafness in Kent during the seventeenth century.

Nor is Martha’s Vineyard unique. There are signing villages all around the world. The most well known is Al-Sayyid in the Negev desert of Israel. As on Martha’s Vineyard, deafness in Al-Sayyid is caused by a recessive gene. As on Martha’s Vineyard, the village handles the situation by becoming bilingual in both spoken and signed languages.

American Sign Language Alphabet

The last deaf resident of Martha’s Vineyard died in 1952. North America’s only known signing village no longer exists, but it did leave us a legacy. Because the first teacher of the deaf in North America was a Frenchman, American Sign Language is largely based on French Sign Language. However, it also contains a mixture of indigenous American signs. The Martha’s Vineyard sign language was the only comprehensive sign language known to have existed in America prior to the nineteenth century and Vineyard children made up the largest portion of the first classes in America’s first school for the deaf. Therefore, it is likely that the Vineyard language was the greatest indigenous contributor to American Sign Language.

There is another legacy left to us by these Islanders. A legacy of inclusiveness and a challenge to redefine “disability.” Are we up to that challenge?

To learn more about hereditary deafness on Martha’s Vineyard, check out Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language, by Nora Ellen Groce. To learn about the Israeli signing village of Al-Sayyid, look for Talking Hands by Margalit Fox.

  1. Nora Ellen Groce, Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language (Cambridge, Masachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1985), 5.