Friday, April 4, 2014

D is for Deafness

Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the 1800s, Martha's Vineyard was known for having an unusually high percentage of deaf residents. In 1854, 1 in every 155 people on the island was deaf. In Chilmark, where the highest concentration of deaf people resided, 1 in 25 was deaf. By comparison, the national average at this time was one deaf person in every 5,728 people.

Due to this high percentage, Martha's Vineyard Sign Language was widely used on the island by both deaf and hearing people. The language was so prevalent, used in schools, churches, and essentially in all facets of everyday life, that deafness was not a barrier to full participation in the island community.

Martha's Vineyard Sign Language, which was influenced by French Sign Language, later became a major influence on the creation and development of American Sign Language.

As islanders began to move to the mainland and back, often bringing spouses from off island with them, the lines of hereditary deafness on the island diminished and the Martha's Vineyard language began to die out. The last person born into the island's sign language tradition was Katie West, who died in 1952.

There is hearing loss in my Vineyard ancestors, and both my dad and grandfather wore hearing aids as they aged. Since I seem to have almost all of their genes, I would not be at all surprised if I end up wearing them as well when I am older. If I do, the hearing aids will definitely be a reminder of my Vineyard genes!




My A-Z of Martha's Vineyard theme is inspired by my book, The Ghosts of Aquinnah, which is set on the island. Click here for all the info on the book.

49 comments:

  1. While it was good so many were in one place which meant acceptance and the ease of using sign language, it also perpetuated itself.
    Hope you don't lose your hearing, Julie.

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  2. 'morning, Julie. Just had to pop over to see what you were up to.

    Has it ever been discovered why all the deafness? Environmental or genes?

    At least, you have a long ways to go and perhaps you are anticipating something that will never happen.

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  3. That is fascinating!

    Do they know why there was such a large number of deaf people at that time/place?

    Madeline @ The Shellshank Redemption
    Minion, Capt. Alex's Ninja Minion Army
    The 2014 Blogging from A-Z Challenge

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  4. What a thing to be well known for - a high prevalence of deafness! It's so interesting how genetics work. :)

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  5. Little facts like these are fascinating and give towns and stories a form of endearment.

    Hugs and chocolate!

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  6. Hi Julie - how strange and Inge and as Madeline query .. I wonder why too?! I imagine a good research project has been made .. and could provide a good source for following through ..

    It looks like it's a male thing .. so perhaps you'll get away without losing your hearing .. but help and treatments are so good now - you probably won't really be troubled, even with a hearing aid device of some sort.

    I wonder if the Sign Language used today is similar to the general sign language in use ..

    Love this bit of info re Martha's Vineyard ...

    Cheers Hilary

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  7. That's amazing!
    On the other hand, you may continue with normal hearing into your old age... maybe the gene (if it's a genetic thing) will skip and land up in the next generation... you never know...
    Are you good with sign language... probably are...

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  8. That's such an interesting bit of history. I took ASL courses in college but I've sadly forgotten most of it since I didn't have the opportunity to reinforce what I learned.

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  9. wow very interesting-I did not know that and great for geneticists. i think I am already going deaf:)

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  10. See, I didn't know this either about Martha's Vineyard. You sure have found some interesting facts about the island!

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  11. This is interesting, I have never heard of it before Julie. I had only heard of the beauty of the place.

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  12. @Alex, I hope not. My dad and grandpa never totally lost it but definitely needed the hearing aids.

    @Inge, I think it was all genetic. The island was so isolated back then.

    @Madeline, as far as I know it was all genetic. It is so interesting though, isn't it?

    @Trisha, isn't it? It's amazing all they have learned and are continuing to learn about genes.

    @Hilary, I think it is similar, but I don't know for sure. I think sign language itself is so interesting! Tried to learn it once but didn't get very far to say the least, I was clueless LOL.

    @Michelle, no I was terrible when I tried to learn it! If I do have troubles I hope it will be resolved with hearing aids.

    @Sarah, I took them too but I thought it was so hard! I didn't have any knack for it at all.

    @Birgit, oh, I hope not.

    @Marcy, glad you learned something new! :)

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  13. @Rachna, I don't think it's very well known any more, glad you liked the post.

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  14. @shelly, I'm sorry I missed your comment earlier, I totally agree. Hugs back to you.

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  15. My mom wears 2 hearing aids, supposedly what she has is also hereditary. Yikes! My daughter studied sign language, it's interesting to watch the movements.

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  16. I read once that deafness is huge in France, too. Something like 10% of the population.

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  17. Isn't that odd - I didn't even realize deafness was genetic. What a fascinating detail about MV. Thanks!

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  18. WOW... that is really interesting, Julie..

    To have such a large percentage of deaf residents is pretty amazing. Especially at that time.

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  19. @Cathrina, I think it is too.

    @Cathy, interesting, I didn't know that.

    @Lexa, I never really thought about it but I guess everything is!

    @Michael, isn't it? I can't imagine it.

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  20. Wow! I did not know Martha's Vineyard had so many deaf residents. That is interesting, for sure.

    I hope your hearings stays healthy, Julie.

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  21. That is amazing, Julie. Small gene pool! Signing is great to know. Used to do it a bit with a deaf friend, but I never got it well enough to stop her laughing at me. :-)

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  22. Of course on an island hereditary conditions can be a problem. What an interesting post about the Vineyard, about how everyone learned to communicate with each other. And that's the good thing about island life, communication and sharing in a close knit community.

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  23. I regret not continuing my sign language class. I finished but did not continue, therefore losing the rhythm and losing communication with others who I am around that are hearing challenged. Very interesting post and educational.
    Katy Did

    Life's Ride In Between

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  24. What a neat tidbit! I'll probably be wearing a hearing aid too, but I'll have ear buds to thank.

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  25. @Chrys, thanks, I hope so.

    @Lee, LOL, I'm sure anyone would laugh at me too. I couldn't get the hang of it at all.

    @Inger, yeah, I thought it was so interesting that all the hearing residents could use sign language too.

    @Katy, so glad you liked it, thanks.

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  26. @Elizabeth, yeah, I think I would have to blame those too LOL.

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  27. how strange!!
    i like that our high school teaches ASL. And that there was a deaf guy on Amazing Race - awareness brings acceptance where once they were shunned and teased.

    cool that you use it in your book, too!

    happy d day!

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  28. Wow, what an interesting little tidbit! Have a great weekend, Julie! :)

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  29. @Tara, oh, that's great your school teaches ASL. I didn't realize that was being done now but how awesome.

    @SK, thanks, you too! :)

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  30. Very very interesting. There is always a need for new blood, and the gene pool needs mixing.

    Have any definitive studies been done to find out more?

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  31. That's fascinating, I hadn't thought of those kinds of problems on islands, but it makes sense.

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  32. Another interesting facet to your A-Z theme and something else I didn't know.

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  33. Incredible trivia. My grandma has been an experimental patient for hearing aid development, although her deafness came from childhood illness, not genetics. I'm very comforted by that fact because I'm a composer, and to do that without the ears... *shudders*

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  34. I don't think I have ever come across a deaf person without an hearing. Recently we had a woman who had been deaf since a child, now fitted with an implant she has hearing for the first time at 42. The video showing her hearing for the first time was remarkable.

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  35. Very interesting. I usually just associate Martha's Vineyard with the swanky jet-set. Now it has a totally new meaning for me. :)

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  36. @DG, not that I'm aware of. But there was a book about the situation called Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language or something like that, I'd be interested to read it.

    @km, it does but I wouldn't have thought about it either.

    @Joy, glad you found it interesting, thanks!

    @Crystal, oh that's interesting about your grandma! And I'm glad for your sake that her hearing loss isn't genetic.

    @Bob, oh, I've seen some of those videos too, it's so amazing what they can do now.

    @Mark, LOL, it's funny that it has that reputation now because it was totally different when I was a kid.

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  37. I need to learn to sign. My wife has trouble hearing that seem to be progressive. It runs in her family.

    Brandon Ax: Writer's Storm

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  38. Really? Wow, I had no idea. That IS a high percentage. How different is the vineyard's SL from american SL?

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  39. Hmm...that's really interesting, Julie, the history of Martha's Vineyard. I didn't know that deafness could run in families...or rather never thought much about it.
    Shells–Tales–Sails

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  40. Wow, that's an interesting fact. I also didn't know that ASL stemmed from French. That's cool.

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  41. Very cool post! I remember learning sign language in elementary school. I think the teacher did this so we would talk with our hands and keep the noise level down.

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  42. That's fascinating. I'm curious about why it was so prevalent. I hope you keep your good hearing forever.

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  43. That's intriguing, Julie, I never read about that before. It's mysterious that so many of Martha's Vineyard residents were deaf. It must have been quite a challenge for them.

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  44. That's really interesting. I do wonder why it was like that on the island. Have a lovely weekend!

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  45. That is interesting. Since islands seem to be so contained, that does make sense, with deafness waning once newcomers and spouses were brought in.

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  46. Best of luck with your hearing. Sometimes it is good for genes to mix. Deafness is something we must accept can happen to any of us.

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  47. Fascinating! I think it's so cool how hearing people ended up using sign language as a result, too. Never realized hearing loss was genetic, though. Hope you won't one day be forced to wear hearing aids!

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  48. @Brandon, oh, I hope you wife doesn't lose her hearing completely.

    @Liz, I don't know, it would be interesting to find out. I don't know if there's anyone who really knows the Vineyard SL now though.

    @Sharon, it's interesting how many things do turn out to be genetic, I never thought about it in the past either.

    @Loni, isn't it? I was curious how they knew the French SL, someone must have introduced it to the island but it seems so strange really.

    @Stephen, LOL. That would actually be a great idea for a teacher.

    @Nana, thanks, me too!

    @Deanie, it must have been but at the same time I guess they really benefited from the fact that the community was so self-contained and all knew SL.

    @Christine, thanks, you too.

    @Medeia, yeah, they definitely needed an influx of new genes I guess.

    @Sheena-kay, yeah, you just never know.

    @Heather, me too, fingers crossed!


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  49. Genetic deafness, huh? I never knew this.

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Thank you for your comments!