Where Everyone Spoke Sign Language
The astonishing thing is that nearly everyone on the island was bi-lingual, speaking both English and a homegrown sign language. Those with hearing used sign language not simply to converse with those who were deaf but also to converse quietly, to speak across long distances instead of yelling and even for general conversation.
Medical anthropologist Nora Ellen Groce, now a professor at Yale University, ends her book Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha's Vineyard by writing, "The most striking fact about these deaf men and women is that they were not handicapped because no one perceived their deafness as a handicap. As one woman said to me, 'You know, we didn't think anything special about them. They were just like anyone else. When you think about it, the Island was an awfully nice place to live.' Indeed it was."
According to Redeafined, “Deafness was considered a normal and acceptable trait rather than a medical condition or disability. Deaf people were fully integrated into society, and marriages between Deaf and hearing people were common.
Handicaps are that only relative to another standard. A handicap is a negative difference only when the larger society perceives it as such and doesn’t create an environment in which people can interact as equals. Dominant groups tend to see others not only as different but inferior. Frequently when society realizes the injustice, the steps are first tolerance, then accommodation in an attempt to become inclusive. These steps are often awkward and patronizing.
Accepting and acknowledging differences without smug superiority is a difficult task. The people of Martha's Vineyard did it because deafness was so commonplace as to define the norm. Everyone learned sign language not to help out 'the poor unfortunates' but because in order to communicate everyone needed to know sign language. Deafness and hearing, sign language and spoken language were of one piece. No one was defined by the ability to hear or the lack thereof.
Understanding the world in another's way is different than 'helping' those in need. No one wants to be patronized, but we all want our uniqueness to be honored. Being patronized is withering. Feeling and acting morally superior is a kind of spiritual death to all parties involved.
A challenge is avoiding being moralistic on the one hand and indifferent to needs of people who are different on the other. But anyone who said that learning how to be decent people was an easy thing wasn't telling the truth.