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Winter 1986 MARTHA'S VINEYARD, 1700-1900: A DEAF UTOPIA? Barry A. Crouch Nora Ellen Groce's Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language [Harvard U. Press. 1986. 169 pp., $17.50] has received national attention and uncritical reviews. Some of the praise is deserved by this first major work focused on hereditary deafness over a long historical span and tracing its roots to England. The author's almost total reliance upon oral testimony as to the status, role, condition, class, and historical situation of the deaf on Martha's Vineyard for three centuries leaves an impression of an idyllic society. An assessment of the methodology and the sources she consulted is necessary for a balanced critique of the book. As a field, deaf studies is in its infancy, but one sign that the field is recognized is the appearance of a major article about deaf people by Oliver Sacks in the New York Review of Books. Professor of Neurology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Sacks built his essay on his review of three books about deaf people published by prestigious presses: When the Mind Hears and The Deaf Experience by Harlan Lane, and Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language by Nora Ellen Groce. The latter work is the focus of this review. Groce's book centers in the interaction between the deaf and hearing inhabitants of Martha's Vineyard over approximately three centuries. Her primary concern with this small isolated island off Cape Cod is to "construct an ethnohistory of a genetic disorder." She pictures a bucolic community where the hearing did not discriminate against the deaf and each group allegedly participated actively in the other's activities. She writes that the deaf Islanders thrived in this insulated world and lived as normal a life as was possible for deaf people living among the hearing, while their counterparts on the mainland survived in a more hostile environment. A brief survey of Groce's findings demonstrates how she arrived at these conceptions. Although she uses the Vineyard as her laboratory, deaf people were prominent in only two towns on the island, Chilmark and Tisbury. A few other deaf persons were scattered throughout the Vineyard, except in Gay Head. During the 19th century one person in every 155 born on the Vineyard was deaf; Groce computes the national rate of deaf birth at one in every 5,728, a figure much too low according to recent deaf demographics. (See SLS 51, 187f.) A more reliable calculation would put it at one in every 3,700. More specifically, for Tisbury the average was one in 49, and SLS 53 Crouch : 382 for Chilmark, one in 25. In Edgartown, a deaf individual surfaced in the 1720s, and by the late eighteenth century the deaf birth rate was four times the national average. By 1800 six deaf people lived there out of a population of 1,375, the last one dying in 1880. In summary, for the time span covered by her study (she vacillates on the dates covered by her work), Groce identified "at least seventy-two deaf persons born to Island families" and a "dozen more were born to descendants of Vineyarders who had moved off-Island" (pp. 3, 42). The cause of this high incidence of deafness was a recessive gene transmitted by a group from the Weald of Kent in England, who move to America seeking religious freedom. They first migrated to Scituate (32 miles south of Boston), next to Barnstable, and then finally to Martha's Vineyard. Genetically isolated on the island, these settlers carried the genetic trait and expressed it through several generations of marriages among individuals with a common ancestor. Writes Groce: "In the three hundred years of settlement, only one deaf child was born to a couple in which one partner's family came from off-Island" (pp. 21-49). In accordance with the characteristics of a recessive gene trait, 85 percent of all congenitally born deaf in Vineyard history had hearing parents. These children included 29 males, 34 females, and 9 whose sex went unrecorded. The first deaf person on the island was Jonathan Lambert, mentioned in the early eighteenth century by Samuel Sewell, a famous...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6263
Print ISSN
0302-1475
Pages
pp. 381-387
Launched on MUSE
2013-10-02
Open Access
No
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