Culture Paper

Back in the 1800s, a deaf culture or community was non-existent unless you lived on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, which is next to the Atlantic Ocean off of Cape Cod. During the 1800’s, the islanders lived in isolation, having little contact with people from the mainland. Hereditary deafness was widespread in the communities on Martha’s Vineyard. In 1880, one out of four people in the village of Chilmark was deaf. Picturing the way of life would be tough since I wasn’t around during this time.I would say on clear mornings the Chilmark fishing fleet would be scattered across the bay with each team full of knowledge of the seas and what feeds the community, that the way they communicated with one another would be with their hands, faces, and body movements. Three out of four people in Chilmark could hear, but nearly everyone had a deaf parent or a deaf sister, a deaf uncle or a deaf child. Most hearing people were fully bilingual, as they spoke in English but learned sign language as a matter of course. Conversation in Chilmark slid from sign to English and back to sign again (Nomeland, 2012).Nobody seemed to care or even notice this was going on. Around that time, deaf people in the rest of the United States could not participate in many parts of society. The hearing society thought that because deaf people could not speak, this meant they were ignorant. Hearing people did not realize the deaf people could speak with their hands. Most deaf people were not allowed to get an education, take part in social activities, or even get married. But on Martha’s Vineyard, the deaf ran businesses, participated in government, and had large families.After the American School for the Deaf opened in Hartford, Connecticut in 1817, almost all of the deaf people from Martha’s Vineyard were educated there. They brought their local sign language with them, and it mixed with the French Sigh Language being taught at the school. This mixture became the American Sign Language of today. In 1874, President Grant took a vacation in Martha’s Vineyard. Before that, the island was unknown to outsiders. But it soon became a popular tourist spot. As the islanders had more and more contact with outsiders, the deaf population started to decrease.Many people moved away to look for better job opportunities, or to marry people from other places. The people who moved to the island did not have hereditary deafness, so fewer deaf children were born on the island. Soon most of the hearing people on the island did not learn sign language any more. A painter named Thomas Hart Benton spent summers on the island, and in 1926 he made a painting of a deaf couple named George and Sabrina West. They were part of the last generation of deaf islanders. In 1952, the last deaf islanders died (Lane, 1999).For more than sixty years ASL persisted underground, despite the tireless efforts of teachers to stamp it out. Students signed to one another in the hallways, bathrooms, and dormitories of schools for the deaf. The foremost teachers of ASL were the deaf children of deaf parents, who learned to sign at home from infancy onward. When they went away to school, these expert signers quickly taught ASL to their classmates. Since there were few deaf teachers at the schools for the deaf, and since not many hearing parents learned ASL, deaf children seldom had the chance to learn signing from adults.Linguists noted that sign languages are the only languages on Earth primarily taught to children by other children. Throughout the United States a tragic paradox existed at schools for the deaf. The students could not understand or express themselves in spoken English, the language of their teachers. The teachers could not use or understand ASL, the language of their students. Even the most basic exchange of information was a struggle. After graduation, most students tended to stay in towns near the school for the deaf or to move to cities that had large deaf populations.Within these deaf communities people worked, married, and raised their children. Common experience and a common language, ASL, bound deaf people together (Davis, 2000). People who are profoundly deaf from early childhood face great barriers to learning to speak and lip-read. Without the aid of hearing, they must learn oral language through one labored step after another. In contrast, deaf children master ASL swiftly and naturally by watching other signers, much as hearing children master spoken language by listening and imitation (Nomeland, 2012).When parents learn that their baby is deaf, they ask themselves a host of questions. How will they communicate with a child who cannot hear them call his/her name? How will they explain the world to a child who cannot speak their language? Searching for answers, they take their child to a series of specialists. Some of these professionals, who are themselves hearing people, recommend training in speech and lip-reading. Others recommend ASL. As parents learn about ASL, they are impressed by its grace and beauty, but they do not understand this visual language and doubt that they could learn.ASL is different from spoken English that it makes many hearing uncomfortable. Furthermore, teachers falsely warn that if a child begins to use signs, they will never learn to talk. When a person loses his/her hearing later in life, they usually keep the ability to speak aloud, even though they can no longer hear their own words. Most likely they will continue to use spoken and written language as their main way to communicate. Within the ASL community such people are sometimes referred to as “deaf” with a small d.The term “Deaf” with a capital D is reserved for those who consider ASL to be their primary language. Members of the Deaf community do not regard their deafness as a disability. They consider themselves part of a cultural group, much like Latinos, Korean-Americans, or people of Italian heritage. Because they share a language and life experience in community, deaf people who sign feel a deep sense of community. ASL carries the traditions, the humor, and the poetry of Deaf culture from one generation to the next (Basinger, 2000).Today teachers, legislators, and the general public recognize ASL as a legitimate language. Some feel it is the birthright of every deaf child in the United States. But American Sign Language has not always been so well regarded. For decades it was scorned by educators of the deaf, who forbade its use by their students. The history of ASL is a story of prejudice, fear, and good intentions gone wrong. And it is the story of a minority group that banded together for mutual support, its members sustained by a language they has continued to share and cherish (Davis, 2000).

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