Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language - by Nora Ellen Groce

For over 200 years from the mid 1600s to the early 1900s, on the island of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts a large deaf community thrived. While other deaf people often lived in isolation, those on Martha's Vineyard not only knew many other deaf people (a quarter of the population was deaf at the peak) with whom they could communicate, they could also sign to their hearing neighbors who all also knew sign language. At the time Groce did her research in the late 1970s and early 1980s the last of the population with hereditary deafness had died out, but there were still some on the island who remembered when "everyone here spoke sign language". Through oral histories and old records Groce discovers that the deaf population was fully integrated into the life of the island including business dealings, social life, church, and politics.

One of Groce's contacts, a hearing octogenarian at the time of the interview, remembered her mother talking about a professor who came from Boston before she (the interviewee) was born. The professor wanted to know about Vineyard deaf, and her mother never understood why he was so interested in them. "'There was nothing unusual at all about them, you know' her mother would add." A few months after the interview Groce learns that the professor was, in fact,Alexander Graham Bell. She discovers his notes at the Dukes County Historical Society Library. Bell was researching whether deafness could be inherited - "a very controversial question at that time." Groce tracked down more of Bell's notes, packed away in storage, at the John Hitz Memorial Library in Washington, D.C. - Note I subsequently learned that Bell's research interest was in eugenics. 

There was one other passing mention of libraries. One contact remembered going to Tucker parties
The Methodists didn't believe in dancing, you see, so we walked around and we'd change partners andwe'd face our partners and we went right and left...They [Tucker parties] were benefits usually, benefits for the library or the church, or something.
I checked this book out from the library I work in after I started taking an online class in American Sign Language for Librarians.

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