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Deaf Utopia Did Exist at One Time Off the Massachusetts Coast
Once upon a time, there was actually a place that could be considered a deaf utopia. It took place on an isolated island off the Massachusetts coast, the island known as Martha's Vineyard. While many people associate Martha's Vineyard with being the home of the great white sharks in the movie Jaws, the island was better known before that time as an island with a high deaf population. How did that come to be?
Some early Vineyard settlers carried a gene for deafness (the first known deaf settle was Jonathan Lambert, 1694), and over years of marriage, generation after generation of children lived with hearing loss. At one point, one in four children was born deaf!
There were so many deaf people on the Vineyard (most deaf lived in Chilmark) that residents developed a sign language called Martha's Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL) or Chilmark Sign Language (which appears to have had its roots in County Kent in southern England. It's thought that MVSL played a role in the later development of American Sign Language when residents from the Vineyard attended the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut.
Factors That Made Martha's Vineyard Unique
We know there have been other places in history in which a large percent of the population had hearing loss, so what made Martha's Vineyard so unique? Let's look at some of the background facts that led to this "deaf utopia."
High Deaf Population
Certainly, having a large number of people with hearing loss motivated the people of Martha's Vineyard to improve communication opportunities for those who are deaf. Some censuses taken of 19th century Vineyard population reveal the extent of deafness. In 1817, two families had deaf members, with a total of seven deaf. Just a few years later, by 1827 there were 11 deaf. The 1850 Chilmark census identified 17 deaf out of 141 households, in the Hammett, Lambert, Luce, Mayhew, Tilton, and West families. In 1855, it was 17 plus four in nearby Tisbury. The 1880 Chilmark census had 19 deaf in 159 households. New deaf families in the 1880 census included the Nobles and the Smiths. To put this into perspective, compared to the mainland U.S. where the frequency of deafness was 1 in almost 6,000, on the Vineyard it was as high as 1 in 155 (1 in 25 in Chilmark, and 1 in 4 in the Chilmark town of Squibnocket).
High Acceptance of Sign Language
Sign language was so accepted on the Vineyard that a newspaper marveled in 1895 at the way the spoken and signed languages were used so freely and easily by both deaf and hearing residents. People moving to Chilmark had to learn sign language in order to live in the community. Deafness was so common that some hearing residents actually thought it was a contagious disease.
Of note, is that deafness was never considered to be a handicap.
On the Vineyard, deaf children went to school for a longer period of time than hearing children, as the state provided funding for the schooling of deaf children. This actually led to a higher literacy rate among deaf students than hearing students.
Gradual Decline in Deaf Population
Intermarriages persisted and the deaf population of Chilmark and the rest of the Vineyard continued to propagate. It would have kept growing if not for the growth of deaf education on the mainland. As deaf Vineyard children attended schools off-island, they tended to settle off-island, married mainland mates, and gradually the deaf Vineyard population declined. The last deaf Vineyard native passed away in the 1950s.
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