When Sandy and I were discussing the upcoming workshop, she said I must take time to spend on the island. I’m very grateful to her for that, because Martha’s Vineyard is a place I’ve always wanted to visit, not only because I love being on islands, Atlantic islands (on both sides of the pond) in particular. I also love – and even have a need – to physically experience places that are steeped in human history. The Vineyard holds fascinating, uplifting history that resonates at my core.
I borrowed and read this excellent book about twelve years ago. In anticipation of my upcoming visit, I recently acquired my own copy. Re-reading it now, not so long after experiencing first-hand how ridiculously easy it is for corporations to blatantly, casually flout ADA laws, is proving to be an emotional event.
For about 300 years on Martha’s Vineyard, due to hereditary factors, there was an unusually high percentage of deaf people (one in 155, as opposed to one in nearly 6000 on the mainland). As the title of the book states, hearing and deaf alike learned sign language along with English as a matter of course in early childhood. Hearing people used sign language among themselves, whether or not deaf people were present; it was simply second nature. As a result, deaf people were full participants in every aspect of island life: like their hearing neighbors, they were farmers, fishermen, shop owners, churchgoers, members of local government and fully present at every social occasion. ‘The deaf’ were not though of as a group, but were remembered as individuals, according to their accomplishments, personalities, professions, and relationships first. To be deaf was simply not perceived as being unusual in any way. “It was taken for granted…as if somebody had brown eyes and somebody else had blue…They were just like anybody else.” Perhaps the most telling of many such quotes in the book is this, a reply by an island woman in her 80s when asked about neighbors who were ‘handicapped by deafness’: ‘“Oh,” she said emphatically, “those people weren’t handicapped. They were just deaf.”’
The history of Martha’s Vineyard definitively points out that the notion of ‘disability’ is something a culture creates by tacit agreement (as discrimination often is practiced as well). Perhaps walking the land and breathing the air of an island imbued with such beautiful history will provide my own last bit of healing, finally obliterating the remaining scars left by sanctioned bigotry. I felt a bit guarded about writing of this, until I read the jacket notes by no less a personage than Oliver Sacks: “ I was so moved by Groce’s book that the moment I finished it I jumped in the car, with only a toothbrush, a tape recorder, and a camera – I had to see this enchanted island for myself.”
Spring is here! And I’m in the studio, making books (but out every day, basking).