Everyone here spoke sign language

History says, don’t hope…

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of Justice can rise up

And hope and history rhyme

(The Cure at Troy, 1991)
Seamus Heaney

Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) asserts that it is never helpful to view a person’s disability as a personal deficit and that the labels we use often obscure the individual and positive attributes of disabled people, reducing them to being defined by:

  1. what they can’t do
  2. what they don’t have, and
  3. what they need from others in the service world.


These assertions are central to our ideology and people are free to either agree or disagree with them. But what if we had hard evidence to back up these assertions?

Well….we do!

You're Welcome Logo

Evidence from around the world abounds, while in the UK it is still growing. One of the places to watch over the next few years is one of our major ABCD initiatives in Gloucestershire, called **’You’re Welcome‘. Here we are putting our assertions to the test and inviting people on the margins to the centre of a community building effort. In an exciting collaboration with the Barnwood Trust we have set out to build more welcoming and hospitable local communities across the County in the belief that it is better to focus on people’s strengths, not their labels.

Some think this initiative is a leap into the unknown, and yet are convinced that it is the right approach to take and are prepared to feel the fear and do it anyway. Others have too much of an investment in the status quo to move from their current position. Yet others are ready for turning but need evidence before they will come around to our way of asset based thinking.

So where do we look for proof that, for example, being deaf is not a problem in itself, but that the absence of a hospitable community is?

One of the best examples can be found if we travel back some forty years to Martha’s Vineyard in the USA, an Island where everyone once spoke sign language. This is a place where ‘hope and history’ once rhymed.

Let me elucidate. The rate of deafness in the United States is 1 in 2,730 or 0.04 % of the population. Ethnographer Nora Groce estimates that at the end of the 19th century 1 in 155 people in Martha’s Vineyard were born deaf (0.7 percent), more than 20 times the national average. These high rates of hereditary deafness on the Island had been evident for over two centuries and many of the inhabitants had come originally from the Weald, on the borders of Kent and Sussex in the UK, but no direct link between these two fact has been established.

Nora Groce, in her book ‘Everyone here spoke sign language: Hereditary deafness on Martha’s Vineyard‘, details her findings and provides us with the evidence to underscore the ABCD assertions made at the beginning of this blog.

ABCD in ASLHer study was primarily focused on the small town of Chilmark. While not everyone in Chilmark was deaf, everyone was directly connected to someone who was; consequently everyone spoke sign language. As a result the people who were deaf were not considered by others as having a deficit or a disability. People without any hearing impediments would routinely sign as they spoke and considered those around them that could not hear or speak as the same as them in nearly ‘every sense’. It became natural to be bilingual. As Helen Keller might have described it, people had come to their senses.

Groce noted that for a sustained period all members of the community were bilingual and that Chilmark had managed to dissolve the traditional social barriers that many deaf people experience. She tells us that not only did the deaf people in the Vineyard adapt but that the hearing people adapted to life with deaf people. Consequently people in this small community were not categorised by whether or not they could hear but instead by the person they were and what they could contribute. In effect everyone was heard, could express themselves equally and associate freely.

Could the Fathers of the American Constitution have conceived a more inventive way to make manifest the First Amendment which enshrined in law freedom of expression and free association?

By comparing her findings to the experience of deaf people across the USA, Groce demonstrated that deafness is not a disability but a different way of communicating. On Martha’s Vineyard deaf people lived their lives just as easily and as fully as everyone else in town. They were defined, neither as people with disabilities, nor as disabled people, but as citizens. Her work introduced an empirical case study to what had previously been an ideological debate and established that disability is primarily “defined by the community in which it appears,” (see p. 112).

As scholars in Disability Studies agree, a person is often most disabled by unnecessary barriers or narrow assumptions about what is ‘normal’.

The people in Martha’s Vineyard demonstrated that the concept of ‘a disability’ is an arbitrary social category and that the real challenges for deaf people are actually around them, not within them. Deafness is not the problem but disconnection and lack of community can be.

In the 20th century, tourism became a mainstay in the island economy and jobs in tourism are not as deaf-friendly as fishing and farming. Further migration joined the people of Martha’s Vineyard to the mainland both physically and culturally; today the island community resembles wider society and relatively few speak sign language there anymore.

Alfie Kohn, in his book No Contest. The Case Against Competition – Why we lose in our race to win, gets to the heart of the issue when he says:

‘It is not a fact of human nature that a person’s sense of competence or identity has to be derived from social comparison. It is instead a matter of what kind of task is being performed at the moment and what kind of culture one lives in.’ (see p.41)

Today in the UK we often exile disabled people to the margins, labelling them, and then servicing their categorised / medicalised needs with predefined services in either congregated care settings, or in independent living units (which all too often have become synonymous with lonely living). The assumption underpinning these trends is that disabled people are to be seen only as services users and many without adequate services are simply labelled ‘disaffected service users’ or ‘self funders’.

We believe that the most fundamental act of disablement is to turn a citizen into a dependent client, and that is exactly what we have done to disabled people for decades.

People need to be interdependent and free to express themselves and able to associate with others and be assured that specialised services will be available and accessible as and when required.

It is true that one measure of the civility of a society is the extent to which people receive services when they need them. However, the extent to which people can discover, connect and contribute their gifts, skills and passions to those around them is an equally important measure; the extent to which people are active citizens. In fact, the latter is the most accurate and useful measure of a healthy democracy.

In Gloucestershire our aspiration is to build a welcoming community where everybody is valued and nobody is seen as surplus to requirements. Where nobody is expected to be a passive spectator and everyone is recognised as someone with something of intrinsic and essential value to offer.

Isn’t it time that communities everywhere came to their senses and realised that a community that does not have a place for disabled people, has a place for no one?

‘Every gift contains a danger. Whatever gift we have we are compelled to express. And if the expression of that gift is blocked, distorted, or merely allowed to languish, then the gift turns against us, and we suffer.’ (Johnson, L – Thoughts on Giftedness: Understanding Our Gifted)

Cormac Russell

** What excites me about the ‘You’re Welcome’ initiative is the participatory way in which the active research will be undertaken and further evidence will be gathered. Over the next three years, ethnographic, and developmental evaluation processes will open a window onto this way of working and add critically to the body of robust evidence, such as the story of Martha’s Vineyard, that we are already using to make our case for ABCD. The Barnwood Trust will share these findings widely.

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  • Lorna Stevenson

    I think this is wonderful work and I am a huge advocate of your teams approaches and the others you endorse, but I offer one criticism here…if you are truly at the heart of the person and their assets then you would not use the term ‘disabled people’. This in itself could be debilitating, a label obscuring the individual. I prefer to say ‘people who have a disability’ – it may be wordier but for me I am a person who has a hearing impairment, I am not a hearing impairment with a person. Just a little suggestion, some food for thought. As I say though, I have huge respect and appreciation for Natural Development and enjoy following your progressions and hope to utilise these when I complete my current studies for my masters in Community Learning and Development.

    October 19, 2013 at 7:49 pm
    • Thanks so much for your thoughts, Lorna.

      The point that we were hoping to convey with this blog and in using the example of Martha’s Vineyard, is that people can be disabled by society; externally disabled rather than internally disabled. We’ve been discussing this with our colleague, Mole Chapman (Director of Equality Training), as we understand it is an enormous debate and one which is still going in the UK. Mole has written a brilliant think piece which is helping to inform our learning and we hope will contribute to our discussion here. You can download the PDF here – ‘A Different Perspective on Disability’. A few things came out of our discussion:

      1. ‘Disabled people’ or ‘people with impairments” tends to be used by the disability movement in the UK
      2. ‘People with disability/ies’ tends to be used by some advocates and some inclusionists in the UK
      3. US and Australia use ‘people with disability/ies’
      4. The jury is out worldwide, but we find that many who prefer ‘people with disability/ies’ do not understand the Medical Model / Social Model distinction therefore are unaware of the origins of the debate – this is picked up in the think piece attached.

      Thanks again for your thoughts, we look forward to more 🙂

      October 21, 2013 at 2:30 pm

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