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American Annals of the Deaf

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The Emergence of the Deaf Community in Nicaragua: “With Sign Language You Can Learn So Much”

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Likewise, thirty-six years after the American Asylum of the Deaf was founded in 1817, the New England Gallaudet Society was organized in 1853. Since the earliest reports from the group (published in the American Annals of the Deaf) describe it as a “regional” group with each state represented on the board of managers, the existence of multiple, smaller, preexisting deaf communities is implied. But the founders of the society never included in their reports to the Annals any history of either state or local groups, so we really do not know how any local groups had emerged, or what their characteristics were (American Annals of the Deaf 1857).

The society of Martha’s Vineyard, from the 1600s to the 1800s, when it was isolated from the mainland, appears to have accommodated to the fact that it was composed of both hearing and deaf, by the group expectation that everyone would learn the sign language, not just deaf persons. Nora Groce’s, interestingly, describes an area in which a deaf community did not form, even though there was a high rate of congenital deafness (Groce 1985).

As you read about the Nicaraguan deaf community in the following chapters, it is important to keep the Martha Vineyard’s society in mind. Because sign language was not limited for use by only deaf persons, lack of oral competency was not an impediment to social participation. For the period in which the island was isolated, at least, it appears that the deaf members of the society had opportunities equal to (or nearly equal to) their hearing peers to become full social actors, and thus, never had any need to form a separate group.

The Nicaraguan deaf community offers us an excellent opportunity to examine the events of the past sixty (but especially the past twenty-five) years to discover what elements and catalysts seem to be important to produce a deaf community. The formation of deaf communities is linked closely to the societal roles that deaf persons are allowed to play. Where deafness is construed as incompatible with any type of social agency—where deaf persons are prohibited or strongly encouraged not to leave their birth homes, and thus, remain isolated from one another—no deaf community will form. Where social agency is considered to be possible only through oral proficiency, a certain number of deaf persons will strive to attain such agency, and a few will succeed. The others will consider their inability to acquire oral fluency to be a personal failing within a legitimate status quo and will participate marginally, if at all, in society outside of their families.

But at the point where a sufficient number of deaf persons find that not only is social agency through oral means not the only avenue, but that an alternate language form could do just as well, a deaf community will form and its members will become social agents within that group. They will use the group as a bridge to wider active social participation. At the periphery of the deaf community, a subset of bilingual individuals will form and become intermediaries for individual deaf members with the society of the oral majority. Thus, participation in the deaf community will offer these individuals ample opportunities to be social actors within the subculture, and through the subset of bilingual individuals, participation as a social agent in the wider society will also be possible.

My interest in Nicaragua dates from 1987 when I spent the year as a volunteer with the group, Witness for Peace. Afterwards, I was an audiologist in Yakima, Washington, for five years before entering the doctoral program in language and culture at the University of Texas at Austin, which, at that time, was hosted, in part, by the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders. Because of my interest in the function of the ear and my experience with Central


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