What Does It Take to Create a Signing Community?

Here’s a question that’s been on my mind. What prevalence of deafness (or other type of embodiment) must exist in a given population or community space, for it to be considered something ordinary, common, and unremarkable?

Put in another way, with further implications: what quota of deaf people, or sign language users, must we reach in order for deafness to become normalized more broadly, and for everyone to go ahead and get on board and learn sign language to communicate with each other?

Is this number fifteen percent, twenty percent… thirty percent? Do cultural and behavioral shifts only happen once a given characteristic is in the majority? Is it even possible to pinpoint a numerical tipping point for such behavioral changes, to begin with? What influence does statistical frequency have upon culture, especially given cultural tendencies to organize around a perceived ideal of normalcy?

Enough questions for now. All of these musings have lurked in the back of my mind for several years now, but they rose to the surface again today, as I read Nora Ellen Groce’s classic book Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha’s Vineyard. (Much recommended, especially for anyone who wants to think more about how language use, community, and ideas about disability are socially contingent!) In this book, Groce relates an ethnohistorical account of deafness and sign language use on Martha’s Vineyard, where genetically recessive deafness became so prevalent in several pockets of the island population during the 18th and 19th centuries that everyone on the island started using sign language as a way to communicate. Sign language and English were used so interchangeably, and by so many members of this population, that Vineyarders stopped thinking of any meaningful distinction between deaf and hearing in the way we do today. During this time the deaf did not form a distinct minority or linguistic group, separate from hearing people. In contrast to communities on the mainland (and throughout much of history), these deaf people seem to have had no real disadvantages in language access, education, social and cultural influence, or career opportunities on the island. Instead, it seems that they simply lived, alongside other deaf people but also equally alongside other signing hearing relatives, neighbors, and companions. Groce’s book gives an oral history account of older residents’ memories of sign language use among hearing and deaf people alike; they overwhelmingly describe how deafness amounted to a mere difference rather than a "handicap" (and even forget who was deaf on the island and who wasn’t), how hearing people used sign language with each other as well as with deaf people, and how knowing sign language was an expected skill for anyone who moved to the island.

Martha’s Vineyard has become such a linguistic Eden, such a locus for cultural nostalgia among later-day deaf community members and artists and activists, that I was aware of this secondary cultural significance as I read Groce’s account of life on the island. (I was also aware that I, too, experienced my own response of cultural longing and nostalgia while reading. Someone needs to write a literary narrative about the significance of this “lost” world of Martha’s Vineyard sign language, vis-à-vis the lens of cultural memory and imagination and our fraught relationship to the past.) Indeed, as I imagine most people do when they encounter this history, I wondered: what would it take for that type of fully (or nearly fully) signing community to arise again? What would need to happen for sign languages to take a renewed place at the core of a cultural space, with all of their possibilities for visual and embodied communication beyond the mere existence of deafness? I’ve written briefly before about how not knowing sign language puts hearing people at a disadvantage, but I still wonder what it takes for this idea of sign language use to spread among all members of a population. Is it simply a numbers game? Is it just a phenomenon that can arise where the circumstances are right, like they seem to have been on Martha’s Vineyard during that space of around 250 years – where the community was sufficiently small, isolated, and self-contained, and where just enough people were deaf that everyone else caught on and started signing without a second thought? And, as I asked earlier: what would that quota of deaf people need to be, exactly, for this to happen?

I also wonder if cultural conventions of using sign language are an issue of visibility and conventions, and not simply numbers. Naturally, the more deaf people there are who use sign in any given space, the more visible sign language is, and the more likely other people are to pick it up and use it, out of cultural pressure – the stories I’ve encountered about signing (hearing) baristas and waitresses around Gallaudet University in Washington, DC attest to this idea. With enough deaf people around, hearing people will notice the signing and conform and pick up some sign on their own, just because it makes communication easier. In other cases, though, increased visibility in media and other cultural spaces can get us closer to this signing tipping point. Although many problems still exist with awareness and engagement with deaf issues, ASL is rising in popularity in mainstream America, and is becoming more present socially and culturally. I’ve noticed in recent years that I’ll go out to coffee shops and restaurants far from any deaf social epicenter, and the hearing folks there will have caught on and will have picked up how to sign “thank you” or anything else relating to my order. (Yesterday, when I was browsing a bookstore: the hearing man working there came up and signed/fingerspelled to me to let him know if I needed any help. Nice job, dude!) Representation matters, beyond any mere quota of community numbers, and links to larger cultural ideas about the body and the value of different types of communication. And in our media-saturated world, I do think film and online and written and other media have a tremendous impact on social and communicative practices.

Social use and larger social formations also matter. At certain times in my life, I have seen how even a strong-majority group of hearing people can be swayed to use sign much more regularly, once that becomes part of the social culture. I’ve been part of social circles where enough of my close (hearing) friends have learned to sign, at least a little bit, that many others who came into the group saw that prevailing convention and immediately seemed to feel pressured to try to sign, too. Said in another way, as more people started to sign, it became easier to get others to do it. This wasn’t an issue of sheer deaf numbers or deaf representation – I was the only deaf member of the social groups I’m thinking of, but a cascade effect soon triumphed, as enough people bought into signing and as it simply became more normalized to use some sign around certain people (versus only speaking, which became a bit weird). Similarly, while I was growing up, my (all-hearing) family used sign language so much at home that I think in retrospect that other people coming into the family household noticed that they didn’t know sign and felt immediately self-conscious. Does language use just come down to social pressure and widespread convention? What are the social expectations we express when we choose to speak versus sign, and how do these matter on a broader scale? When “everyone else” is communicating in a certain way, will more people naturally catch on and start doing it too?

One of the larger issues that the contemporary Deaf community faces, I think, is what to do with the idea of a Deaf community versus a signing community (where said signers may or may not be deaf). Groce’s book, Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language, made me think about this core idea further. Indeed, the identity label “deaf” stops mattering as much (or at least takes on a different type of cultural meaning) if one enters a community where communication access and sign language are more of a given, even if I imagine actual hearing signing ability and use still fluctuates. This is part of why I believe hearing allies continue to be so important to the morphing future of any sort of deaf experience. The cultural salience of deafness shifts depending on cultural context, as the history of Martha's Vineyard clearly shows us – and I’d be curious to keep exploring more of what forces can shape and create a true signing community, only loosely connected to fixed notions of deafness. This will be food for thought for future historical/literary writing and research!