Two-year-old Samantha Savitz loves having the opportunity to talk to anyone who knows sign language. Unfortunately, this can be a struggle when you’re the only deaf individual in the neighborhood.
Her parents, Raphael and Glenda Savitz, say that her desire to connect to others is painfully obvious. Raphael says, “She’s super engaging. She wants to chat up with anybody.” Glenda agreed, saying, “Yeah, her whole personality changes when it’s someone who can communicate with her.”
Savitz’s heart-warming personality and determination to communicate led to an entire neighborhood learning to sign.
This is no surprise for this small community in Newton, Massachusetts that greets new neighbors with plates of cookies, shovels the elderly’s driveways, and makes casseroles for the sick. When they first heard of a deaf baby in the neighborhood, people weren’t going to let the language barrier stop them.
The community found an instructor on their own and now hold regular classes for those who wish to improve their ability to sign. Savitz often attends the meetings, signing “friend.”
Lucia Marshall, a neighbor of Savitz, explains how the community rallied around the two-year-old. “She’s such a cute girl. Everybody’s desperate… to communicate with her. People are working hard so they’ll have something to say. She’s like a sponge. We’re giving it a yeoman’s try.’’
Learning ASL isn’t just for Savitz; it’s for the community, bringing them all together.
Sarah Honigfeld, Savitz’s mentor and teacher, says of the community’s efforts: “It’s an amazing situation that every deaf child should have. I’m thinking about other children who are sent two or four hours away to attend a deaf school because that’s where their community is. She should not be the exception. This should be the standard for a deaf child. It’s not, unfortunately.’’
While an entire neighborhood learning to sign isn’t a new thing for Massachusetts neighborhoods, it is new to this century.
Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts had a high deaf population in the 1800s. 1 in 25 people were deaf in the small town of Chilmark on the island. This was partly because of the isolation of the fisherman community that allowed deafness to be passed down from resident to resident.
Bowdoin Van Riper, the librarian at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, explained that, “People tended to think of the deaf folks in Chilmark as individuals first and not about their disabilities, except in a peripheral way. No different than someone who’s very tall or only has one eye.”
Residents of Chilmark used their specific form of sign language, known as Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language, until the 1950s when the last known deaf person on the island died.
With inspiring stories of communities like Chilmark and Newton, people might be able to sympathize with those who commit to help raise a child regardless of their abilities. Samantha Savitz is lucky to have a welcoming community, but they’re even luckier to have her.
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