Review: Martha’s Vineyard Deafness

“The community’s attitude can be judged also from the fact that until I asked a direct question on the subject, most of my informants had never even considered anything unusual about the manner in which their deaf townsmen were integrated into the society.” p 51

Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha’s Vineyard by Nora Ellen Groce, foreward by John W. M. Whiting.
Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1985.
Academic nonfiction, 169 pages including notes, bibliography, and index.
Not leveled.

This classic work of American Deaf history shines a light on the isolated early community of Martha’s Vineyard, where a high rate of deafness resulted in normalization of sign language and an integration that the world could stand to learn from.

Everyone Here Spoke Sign Lang Martha's Vineyard

I’ve been wanting to read this book for a long time, so was thrilled to be gifted a copy.

This book encompasses several different areas.  Historical records are combined with modern medical understanding to learn more about why this community had such a high rate of deafness.  Oral histories from the oldest living islanders are added to learn more about community attitudes towards deafness and the development of Vineyard sign language.

The total integration of deaf people into the local life (possible through wide knowledge of sign language, practical due to a high rate of deafness) is studied in a variety of categories including statistical comparison of marriage, literacy, and employment rates to both hearing islanders and off-island Deaf.  The final chapters examine how deafness on Martha’s Vineyard compared to historical and contemporary perspectives, and asks what we can learn today from this study.

Yet Groce’s writing is far from dry.  The chapters are short and further broken down into subheadings, and the later portions in particular are full of enlivening anecdotes and interesting references.  She specifically states that while other articles in scholarly journals will delve more deeply into the methodologies and minutia of her research, she wished to keep this book readable.

In the interest of keeping this review readable, I’ll choose just one of the many interesting points.  The island in general had an unusually high focus on education.  This extended to the deaf population, so when the Hartford, Connecticut school for the deaf opened, children from the island were sent there.  Massachusetts would pay for up to ten years of education for deaf students, meaning that the Martha’s Vineyard deaf (who also experienced no language deprivation due to sign access from birth) were often much better educated than their hearing peers.

Some aspects are dated.  The book itself was published in 1985, which must be recalled during comparisons to the current day or contemporary statistics.  The book studies primarily the integration of the deaf on Martha’s Vineyard between the late 1600s to the first half of the 1900s.  Therefore references are made which are sexist, classist, or derogatory toward mental health or other issues.  The language used from historical sources is often considered offensive today as well.

In addition to these, Alexander Graham Bell’s work and the contemporary thinking of various outsiders on deafness is referenced.  Some of these perspectives are outrageous, incorrect and outdated even from Groce’s 1985 perspective.  Thankfully, she includes problematic material only as is needed for context, and does not hesitate to call out issues (Bell’s in particular).  If we ignore the facts of the past, it becomes more difficult to change.

This academic work will primarily be of interest to those studying ASL, d/Deafness, or inclusive communities.  However, it’s well written and entertaining enough to also appeal to more general nonfiction readers who enjoy works about sociology or history.  It’s certainly one I’ll be rereading.  Highly recommended.

Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

3 thoughts on “Review: Martha’s Vineyard Deafness”

  1. Thanks for bringing this one to my attention! 🙂 I know very little about the history of the US deaf community, so hadn’t even heard of this one. Would this be a good one to start with or do you have a newer one you can recommend?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m still searching for a good general history book to recommend – all the ones I’ve read so far are either inaccurate or very academic and specialized. However there is a great documentary called Through Deaf Eyes that gives an overview of American Deaf history. If you want to learn about the culture, I’m really loving For Hearing People Only, but it’s very long and doesn’t talk much about Deaf history.

      For the Martha’s Vineyard community, I think this is still the best work widely available (since this particular group no longer exists) and it seemed accessible even if you don’t have much background knowledge. I also enjoyed Marlee Matlin’s memoir (I’ll Scream Later) which is problematic in some other areas but covers the fight for captioning and the battle for d/Deaf media access. Cece Bell is deaf (not Deaf) so it doesn’t include the cultural aspect but her MG graphic novel memoir El Deafo does a great job of explaining the deaf/hearing aid experience in a mainstream school.


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