Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language

450 words | 2 page(s)

The book Everyone here spoke sign language: Hereditary deafness on Martha’s Vineyard by an American anthropologist Nora Ellen Groce is a historical study of a big deaf community on the island of Martha’s Vineyard in the 19th century. The main idea of the book is that deafness as a handicap is the result of the society’s perception of this condition. The community of Martha’s Vineyard had a historically high proportion of deaf people and even deaf families rooted in social and geographic causes. One of the founders of the community who lived back in the 17th century was deaf, so for centuries more and more people were born deaf. Because of high proportion of deaf people, they were not considered impaired or handicapped, but enjoyed a high level of involvement in the life of the community. However, because in the 20th century people started to relocate to the mainland and start families there, the population of deaf people on Martha’s Vineyard decreased and eventually died out.

The book is organized as to provide a logical examination of how deaf people were a part of the community, and how the community functioned. First, Groce focuses on the island’s history, which sets the context for further study. She then explores the origins and genetics of deafness on the island. One of the most interesting chapters is “The Island Adaptation to Deafness”, which tells about the community’s knowledge of the sign language and its everyday use by all members of community, not just in-between deaf people. The author then discusses deafness in the context of the historical perspective. At the end of the book an important conclusion us drawn: “Those people were not handicapped” (Groce, 1985, p.106). The book is supplied by two appendice that provide written and oral sources and perceived causes of the phenomenon of deafness on Vineyard.

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The biggest value of the book its revolutionary look at the issue of deafness not as an anatomical or medical problem, but as the social construct. For modern Americans, this approach will certainly be shocking. It seems no one could imagine learning the sign language to be able to communicate with a deaf neighbor or other members of deaf community. This attitude certainly explains why deaf people function as outcasts in the community and are generally perceived as a group of handicapped people who are very different from the mainstream society. The fact that such society existed helps to develop the vision that such communities are possible and that deaf people may live different lives if all other members of the society change their attitude to deafness.

  • Groce, N. E. (1985). Everyone here spoke sign language: Hereditary deafness on Martha’s Vineyard. Harvard University Press.

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