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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Through Deaf Eyes: A Photographic History of an American Community

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typhoon in the bowels. Suddenly and prodigiously I broke wind. My elder son, Colin, then five years old, dashed in wide-eyed from the kitchen and inquired, “What’s that big loud noise?”
      Mystified, I arose from the couch, peered out the window, and said, “
What pig outdoors?
     My son stared at me dumbfoundedly. What
pig?
     Go ahead, look in the mirror and watch your lips: to a lipreader, “What’s that big loud noise?” looks exactly like “What’s that pig outdoors?” (Henry Kisor,
What’s That Pig Outdoors: A Memoir of Deafness [New York: Hill and Wang, 1990], xv–xvi).
Lipreading is most effective when paired with hearing. Hearing people unconsciously lipread to supplement their hearing in noisy environments. Many people with mild to  moderate hearing losses, especially those who wear hearing aids, and people who have cochlear implants find lipreading a useful complement  to whatever hearing they possess. Most people with severe to profound losses, however, have difficulty grasping more than isolated words or phrases. Intelligible speech presents similar difficulties:
Speaking is difficult when you cannot monitor your own voice and when you have only the feeblest of cues to enable you to know how you sound to others. As one Deaf person has put it, “For me, speaking is like walking about in public naked” (Jerome Schein, At Home Among Strangers [Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press, 1990], 33).
While most deaf adults have always supported the teaching of lipreading and speech in the schools, many have expressed concern that too often it has had questionable
benefit and has come at the expense of children’s general education and overall language development.

DEAF COMMUNITIES

Deaf people live in every community. In most times and places their numbers are small, but exceptions appear from time to time. One such exception took place on Martha’s  Vineyard from the seventeenth to the early twentieth centuries. Because of an unusually high rate of inherited deafness on the island during that period, many people were bilingual in English and sign language. Consequently, deafness appears to have had little effect on social relations. In the general U. S. population, fewer than 1 in 5,000 children were born deaf at that time (many more became deaf from illness), but on Martha’s Vineyard the number was closer to 1 in 150, and on parts of the island it was as high as 1 in 25. As a result, many hearing islanders were able to switch back and forth from spoken English to sign language depending upon who was present, and there seems to have been no difference between the social and economic lives of hearing and deaf people. They intermarried regularly, did the same sorts of work, earned the same incomes, and participated in the daily life of their communities on an apparently equal basis.

“I had already spent a good part of the afternoon copying down various genealogies before I thought to ask Gale what the hearing people in town had thought of the deaf people.
     ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘they didn’t think anything about them, they were just like everyone else.’
     ‘But how did people communicate with them—by writing everything down?’
     ‘No,’ said Gale, surprised that I should ask such an obvious question. ‘You see, everyone here spoke sign language.’
     ‘You mean the deaf people’s families and such?’ I inquired.


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