A Sign of “Normal”
I have longed remarked that “normal” is simple the greatest number of phobias in a room at any given time. That is to say, what might seem ordinary today could very well be shockingly different tomorrow. Normal is a subjective term and really does mean the greatest average number of things. For instance, in some countries, it is “normal” for residents to have brown eyes while in others, blue eyes are the norm. First used in the late seventeenth century, the word “normal” actually means something that occurs naturally or something which does not deviate or stray from what is common or ordinary.
An island whose population contained many deaf people might not be considered “normal” but, the truth of the matter is that in the seventeenth and eighteenth century it was just that – normal. The immigrants to this island came from an area known as the Weald, in Kent in the south of England. The inherited deafness found in the families there was due to a recessive gene and was so common, so normal, that residents had developed a type of sign language called the Old Kent Sign Language. Whether or not the Old Kent Sign Language migrated with the immigrants, residents on this island all grew up learning not only the spoken English but also the signing that made speaking to deaf residents possible. This bilingual habit of all residents knowing both continued until the early twentieth century. Today the island is a bustling elite tourist destination but for those who trace their ancestry back to its earliest settlers, Martha’s Vineyard is famous for being the birth of American Sign Language.
It is important to note that we are talking about two bright ideas here. First, the ability for all residents to communicate is vital to the health of both residents and the community. Of equal if not more importance though, is the acceptance by the general community of all people – hearing and deaf. The naturalness with which everyone learned to speak and sign speaks greatly to the respect and dignity afforded all residents.
Martha’s Vineyard is a part of the state of Massachusetts in the U.S.A. but it is not the sole contribution to the deaf community the state has made. The Perkins School in Watertown, Massachusetts opened its doors in 1829 as the first school for the blind in the U.S.A. Thirty-seven years later a graduate named Johanna “Annie” Sullivan would graduate and leave to head south for a job as a governess. Perkins also developed the first talking book library for the blind.
As mentioned graduate Annie Sullivan, who had her own sight severely damaged by a bacterial infection of the eye, left to work as a governess for a young girl who had also suffered sight and hearing damage due to infection. The resulting high fevers left the infant unable to see or hear and so her speech was also impaired since speech is a learned or acquired skill based upon what and how we hear. The twenty-year-old Annie Sullivan was not prepared for the conditions and slaves she saw upon arriving at her destination. She immediately launched into an argument with the parents of the child regarding the most recent War Between the northern states and the southern states. Her perception of the “normal” of the south greatly dismayed both sides of the argument but neither was willing to accept defeat in regards to the child Annie Sullivan had been hired to help. Within eight months, using the American Sign Language she had learned at the Perkins School, Annie had taught the young girl had learned over five hundred words and the world was soon to meet her – Helen Keller.
Johanna “Annie” Sullivan Macy remained Helen Keller’s teacher and later friend throughout her life, even after marriage which later withered away and failed. She and Helen Keller traveled the world, breaking down the perception that normal handicapped people could do very little. Helen Keller’s life, for her, was very normal in that it fit in with the ordinary, all that she had ever known. I agree with those who say that, in spite of her blindness, she often saw things more clearly than most of us do. ““When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us. “Be of good cheer. Do not think of today’s failures, but of the success that may come tomorrow. You have set yourselves a difficult task, but you will succeed if you persevere; and you will find a joy in overcoming obstacles. Remember, no effort that we make to attain something beautiful is ever lost.” From the realization that five hand gestures made in the palm of her hand meant the same as the water flowing from the pump handle in the yard of her Alabama home, those gestures that had their birth in the normal bilingual community of Martha’s Vineyard to the worldwide audiences meeting Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan Macy, the definition of “normal” has been expanded. We still have many more miles to go before the bright idea of acceptance for all peoples is universal but together we can achieve such an epiphany.
I leave you with Johanna “Annie” Sullivan Macy’s words from her Valedictorian speech as she graduated and left the Perkins’ School. They are encouraging words for us all to discover the bright ideas within our own lives. “Fellow-graduates: duty bids us go forth into active life. Let us go cheerfully, hopefully, and earnestly, and set ourselves to find our especial part. When we have found it, willingly and faithfully perform it.”