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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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     ‘Sure,’ Gale replied, as he wandered into the kitchen to refill his glass and find some more matches, ‘and everybody else in town too—I used to speak it, my mother did, everybody.’

The Martha’s Vineyard experience suggests strongly that the concept of a handicap is an arbitrary social category. And if it is a question of definition, rather than a universal given, perhaps it can be redefined, and many of the cultural preconceptions summarized in the term ‘handicapped,’ as it is now used, eliminated.

The most important lesson to be learned from Martha’s Vineyard is that disabled people can be full and useful members of a community if the community makes an effort to include them. The society must be willing to change slightly to adapt to all.”

                Nora Ellen Groce, Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985),
2–3, 108

 
In most places and at most times, however, deafness is relatively uncommon. As a result, one of two conditions is necessary to bring a Deaf community into being: a large and concentrated urban population or a deliberate decision to send deaf people to a centralized location, such as a school. The former condition occurred in Paris when the population grew to well over half a million in the eighteenth century. The latter occurred in the United States in the nineteenth century when residential schools for deaf students were established, bringing together large numbers of deaf people. And that is where we begin our story.

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