Department of Languages

ASL Program Aids in the Revival of Signed Language on Martha’s Vineyard

In April, Assistant Professor of ASL Jody Cripps and seven ASL students traveled to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, to initiate a Community Outreach program as part of their Creative Inquiry course. This CI project will aid in reviving Martha’s Vineyard as the signed language community it once was.

A Signed Language History in the Community

Chilmark General Store, a central place where Martha’s Vineyard Signed Language was used with deaf and hearing people in colonial times.

Martha’s Vineyard, an island of just over 17,000 residents off the coast of Cape Cod, has a rich history in signed language that goes back centuries. As home to one of the earliest deaf communities, a regional signed language, known as Martha’s Vineyard Signed Language (MVSL), flourished in the community until the mid-20th century and was used both by the large number of signing deaf individuals residing on the island and by hearing members of the community.

In recent years, the number of signers on the island has declined, which has not only heralded the waning of a rich tradition, but also impacted the deaf community and signing residents of the island. Martha’s Vineyard used to have a wide population of signing individuals, and this made local shops and businesses more accessible. However, many businesses and community members have been unfamiliar with signed languages in recent years. This makes it very difficult for deaf and signing individuals’ full access to the community.

Reviving a Tradition and a Plan to Spread Knowledge

In Martha’s Vineyard, cultural institutions and community members, such as the Martha’s Vineyard Signs Then & Now, a project under a public access MVTV station, are actively working to bring signed language back to the island. These efforts span educating the community and visitors on the island’s rich history and traditions through museum outreach and educational programs, as well as current programs to increase the use and reach of signed language in the community.

Students Rhys Gerrish and Jayla Nelson record Dr. Cripps’ interview with Joan Poole-Nash (a native Martha’s Vineyarder who studies Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language) for MVTV’s program called MV Signs Then and Now outside the Chilmark Library, one of the cultural institutions leading the signed language revival on Martha’s Vineyard.

These efforts are an opportunity for the residents of the community to begin bridging the various communication gaps and enable them to extend a welcoming atmosphere to the many deaf and ASL signing people who visit or reside in Martha’s Vineyard. With the collaboration from the community partners (e.g., MV Signs Then & Now, MVTV station, town libraries, and the Chamber of Commerce), the community has the opportunity to create a model that promotes a society with a signed language-friendly environment.

Knowledge of signed language can bring together the community, and there are many ways to promote the growth and use of signed language in everyday settings for both hearing and signing community members. Residents can be encouraged to use signed language in daily life with their signing family members and friends and those with voice and developmental challenges; in loud restaurants and sports events; in quiet and private situations; and, importantly, with business people, caregivers, medical professionals, first responders and residents in order to bridge the communication gap with their Deaf and ASL signing visitors, patrons and patients to make the island a signed language-friendly environment for everyone.

What Future Research Holds

These promising efforts will be spearheaded by researchers from various institutions, including the projects of our own ASL program. These projects aim to supply the Martha’s Vineyard community with a variety of resources to educate and spread the word about signed language and how its use can positively impact the community.

The researchers will work with the entire community on the island to target what the residents need and want to see from our projects. The projects will be executed in an educational and informative fashion. There will be multiple signed language seminars or webinars that the researchers will host, and the participants can be anyone from the community, but especially ones from local businesses.

Furthermore, the seminars and webinars will not be the only resources. The goal is to create a variety of resources that everyone will have access to that they can use at their leisure. These resources will come in many different forms depending on the available platforms we can reach on the island. Outreach is significant, and our projects will also be advertised to spread the word about the efforts that are being made to make Martha’s Vineyard a signed language community again. Spreading the knowledge of signed languages is vital in order to preserve the history of this island and community.


Here is an exciting look at some of what our ASL students and Dr. Cripps experienced during their trip:

Left to Right Kneeling: Pressley Pollard, Jayla Nelson, Allison Schippert, and Stacy Duvall. Left to Right Standing: Jaylin Dillard, August Vincelette, Dr. Jody Cripps, Keyanna Clanton, Rhys Gerrish, Lynn Thorp, and Donna Jancsy at Lambert’s Cove, named for Jonathan Lambert, the first deaf settler with deaf genealogy at Martha’s Vineyard.
Bow Van Riper, the Research librarian of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, describes his findings with the deaf people on the island to the group. Plans to have an exhibition related to Martha’s Vineyard Signed Language were brought up and further discussed by Bow, Lynn Thorp, some deaf community members, and the Clemson group.
The group working at Oak Bluffs Library. Students interviewed the participants and talked with the librarians about accessibility opportunities.
Left to Right: Pressley Pollard, Keyanna Clanton, Rhys Gerrish, and Allison Schippert at the cemetery looking at the burial grounds of deaf descendants. At least 28 deaf members of the Chilmark community were buried on the hilltop.
Dr. Cripps conducts an interview with Jill Taney (a deaf native of Martha’s Vineyard) for MV Signs Then and Now program.

All photos courtesy of Jody Cripps.


Further information on some of the historical and cultural institutions visited by Dr. Cripps and his students:

Martha’s Vineyard Museum – some artifacts related to Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language can be found in the museum. A portrait of Joseph “Josie” West, a deaf farmer, is on the permanent display, as well as Alexander Graham Bell’s notebook on his investigations for deaf people on the island in the 1880s.

Chilmark Library – The town purchased the house of Katie West, the last deaf descendant with deaf genes and a native of Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language, and turned it into the library in 1956. This library maintains the Chilmark Deaf/Signed Language Community Digital Archive.