|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.