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Deaf Topics:  Martha's Vineyard

Also see: Martha's Vineyard (1)

By: Ricky Ryan

Martha's Vineyard

            To understand how American Sign Language became such a big part of Martha's Vineyard, it's imperative to know a few things about the island beforehand. The small island was first discovered by the Vikings in the year 1000 A.D. In 1524, a second explorer from Italy named Verrazano would land on this island and name the island Claudia.   However, the name Claudia was never used on the island. Bartholomew Gosnold, a second explorer, came from Falmouth, England and was headed to Virginia by ship. Gosnold's ship was lead off course by the wind and he actually ended up saving thousands of miles and weeks of time because of this. He landed on a cape and ended up naming it Cape Cod, because of all the fish nearby. He headed southward after landing on this cape and stumbled across an island. He later called it Martha's Vineyard, after his mother and all the grape vines on the land. Bartholomew was a key explorer to the island because he named a good majority of the land and he settled the first colony on Martha's Vineyard.

Seven-hundred years later, sign language became evident in Jonathan Lambert, the first settler known to have been Deaf. Through the generations, two out of four children were born Deaf, making the isolated Island half deaf and half hearing. The hearing and Deaf people would live side by side with no problems or discrimination toward one another. A majority of the Deaf people had lived in Chilmark, a medium sized town that spoke a different form of sign language. When they came to Martha's Vineyard the two forms mixed. This would lead to MVSL (Martha's Vineyard Sign Language). People were equal on the island and sign language wasn't solely for the Deaf. It was for hearing people as well and it was naturally integrated into the spoken language. Being Deaf wasn't a disability. It was simply a genetic difference, like eye or hair color.

Martha's Vineyard is unfortunately no longer a Deaf utopia, because most of the Deaf community has left. This is due to members of the family moving to the mainland to get their education. They eventually got married and stayed there. When the Deaf people left Martha's Vineyard, they were stunned at how negative people treated them because they were Deaf. This was unfathomable because, as stated before, in their culture Deaf and hearing were the same.  However, some of the traditions that came from the island still live on today. American School for the Deaf opened in Hartford, Connecticut. That school is the main reason Martha's Vineyard's Deaf community left the island. The teachers at the Deaf School were using French Sign Language and the students from the Island were using their native language, MVSL. The two mixed and eventually helped form Modern American Sign Language. Not only was it the birth of ASL, but it was the beginning of the Deaf community on the mainland.

In conclusion, if there is one thing Martha's Vineyard did for the Deaf community today, it would be to establish that the Deaf are not disabled in truth but merely labeled as disabled by our hearing community. The small island went from an unknown piece of land, to a Deaf Utopia, and to a modern society for both the hearing and Deaf cultures alike. American Sign Language can thank the Deaf community on Martha's Vineyard for their part in their current language.  Sign language has flourished in today's society and is widely recognized as a standard way for communication for the Deaf.


Berke, Jamie, (9/5/2010) Deaf History - Martha's Vineyard,, (3/17/13)

Duck,Joe,(April,29,2012) Martha's Vineyard: A History of Deaf Equality on a Little Island,

Baer, C. "
Http://" History of Martha's Vineyard.

Robert Payne, n.d. Web. 17 Mar. 2013. <>.




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