Martha's Vineyard Sign Language

Imagine yourself in the past. Think of a place that has a beautiful village with water surrounding it. Small waves clash against the edge of the island and the boats encircling it. On land, there are small houses that line up against the shore. The people that inhabit the area are a mixture of hearing and deaf. The commonality is that they all interact by using sign language. But not just any sign language – Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language.


Photo Credit: Lynn Thorp

Martha’s Vineyard, located south of Cape Cod in Massachusetts, is an island that was established in 1642. This island plays an important part in Deaf history, beginning with the arrival of Jonathan Lambert (from Kent, England) at Chilmark, a smaller fishing village on the Island in the early 1600s. Lambert, who was Deaf himself – had two children who became the first congenitally Deaf people on the island. Through intermarrying within the small island, the Deaf population of the island grew to large numbers in contrast to the general US population. By the time the 19th century come to be, 1 in every 25 residents of the island was Deaf as opposed to 1 in every 5,700 in the larger US population.

Historians believe that Jonathan Lambert arrived on the island using a sort of regional sign language which evolved as it was passed on from generation-to-generation and family-to-family giving rise to Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL). By the 1700s, Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language was widely known. For every 1 in 25 people who were Deaf, 25 in 25 people knew to communicate in MVSL – Deaf and hearing included. Communicating in MVSL was as natural on the island as communicating in spoken English. The language was used as a communication tool between all people: within the Deaf community, between the Deaf community and hearing and within hearing people as well. MVSL was not an exclusive language but belonged to all people as a whole.

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

For centuries, MVSL was a localized language, but with the establishment of the first Deaf school in America, MVSL moved out of the island for the first time. It was used by Martha’s Vineyard students at the school and was eventually influenced by French Sign Language later in the 19th century as a starting point for American Sign Language. The language back at the island and “utopia” quietly disappeared as many moved to the mainland to seek a new foundation of education at the American School for the Deaf located in Hartford, Connecticut. MSVL thrived for many years but unfortunately came to a halt in 1952 when the last native signer passed away.

Present Day Martha’s Vineyard

Photo Credit: Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

Today, the remnants of the lost language still leave many with questions about the mysterious “utopia” that once was.  In current times, Martha’s Vineyard is known as more of a posh location for wealthy vacationers, and boasts of famous vacationers like Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Bill and Hillary Clinton, NBA star Chris Paul and former President Barack Obama who owns a home on the island.  Although the concept of utopia is long diminished; the island and its residents are unified to this day. In a recent political trend, roughly 50 Venezuelan migrants were flown into Martha’s Vineyard town, Edgartown. This was in an effort to bring awareness to the current administration’s policies at the southern border. Once the two planes with the migrants landed, they were received and welcomed by the local community. Despite the less-than-ideal conditions of their arrival, they met with residents who provided and donated food, water, shelter, clothing and everything else they needed. They had received so many donations that a social media request needed to be put up in order to stop the donations from coming in. Local residents are currently working on ensuring a safe and smooth transition for the migrants that they welcomed, presenting a similar image of a kind and caring community that was prevalent in Martha’s Vineyard a century ago.

Can an accessibility utopia exist today? How can we make one?

One way that an accessibility utopia would exist today is if people were willing to learn from one another and were consistent in their learning. The first step to a unified society is observing how others do things and allowing room for their differing abilities. Kindness is another factor that would contribute to this utopia – without it, the idea would crumble.

The rich history of Martha’s Vineyard with the Deaf community is a great example of an accessibility utopia. There are many lessons that we can take from the residents of centuries ago that we can use even today for a more accessible world.

  1. Make accessibility your everyday way of life. The residents of Martha’s Vineyard used MVSL as fluently and naturally as they did spoken English. A language barrier did not exist for them. Today, despite technological advances, accessibility barriers have not been completely bridged. The building blocks of this bridge include everyday observation, learning and advocacy. An “if you see something, say something” attitude is essential in accessibility. Every day we look past many inconsistencies in accommodations, but it is imperative that we take heed of these inconsistencies and learn how to overcome them for ourselves and others.

2. Accessibility is not just for people with disabilities. Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language was used by everybody in all combinations of communication: between Deaf – Deaf; between Deaf – Hearing and between Hearing – Hearing. The presence or absence of a Deaf person did not change their everyday mode of operation. Accessibility does not require the presence of a person with a disability, it is a standard to be maintained at all times by all people.  It should not fall only on the shoulders of those with disabilities to advocate for better infrastructure. One who is temporarily able-bodied today, may not be in the same situation tomorrow, so better accessibility should be for everybody.

3. Disability should not be treated as a hindrance. The people of Martha’s Vineyard viewed everyone as their own individuals without prejudice or preconceptions. Deaf people in Martha’s Vineyard lived like everybody else, and their disability was treated only as a peripheral representation of their humanity. This did not discourage Deaf people’s involvement in business, leadership, community, marriage and family life, politics and much more. Today, people with disabilities have a larger struggle to be successful in the aforementioned realms. Discrimination against people with disabilities is still prevalent in our world today and needs to be eradicated. The first step to this would be better representation in all media and industry. People with disabilities should be encouraged in business, politics, arts and culture so that the idea of a disabled person holding such offices is not foreign to the next generation.

Martha’s Vineyard plays an important role in Deaf History and presents an image of a unified world. This is important for us to be aware of during Deaf Awareness Month, so that we can get started on developing a new kind of utopia today. A world that acknowledges and celebrates our neurodiversity and utilizes it for the advancement of ALL.

Learn more about Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language here:

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What Happened to Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language?
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