Lynn Thorp: ‘It can bridge gaps’

Lynn Thorp demonstrates a series of signs for “Nice to meet you.” — Lexi Pline

Lynn Thorp has been interested in sign language for almost two decades, ever since her husband Bill became hard of hearing. She thought it would help when they were out in a crowded place, and when she grew tired of repeating herself. It’s been a huge benefit in her life, and she’d love it if more people learned to use it, especially on the Island, with its rich history with the deaf community.

Immigrants from Kent County, England, came to Martha’s Vineyard in the late 1600s, with the first known deaf person among them being Jonathan Lambert, who arrived with his wife and seven children in 1694. Two of their seven children were deaf. The town of Chilmark and the rest of the Island community continued to experience a high concentration of deafness for the next 200 years. Historians say the first deaf people here used a regional form of sign language which they brought from Kent, and it eventually evolved over time into Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language.

Thorp’s love of the history behind sign language has taken her to the first U.S. school for the deaf, the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford, Conn., and she has also visited Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the only university in the world where students live and learn using ASL and English.

In West Hartford, Thorp was able to view student admission lists from the years 1824 to 1892, and found 24 Islanders were enrolled on the lists.

“When I went to the school in Hartford, I got lots of information,” Thorp said when we met at the Oak Bluffs library recently. “There was a list of students that were there for about four or five years of schooling, and then they would go home in summer, coming back to Island. The listing is so neat, it has the name of each student, their parents, brothers and sisters, the classes they took … there’s a lot of information in these notes.”

Thorp’s love of learning and sharing about sign language began with free American Sign Language (ASL) lessons for her and Bill in the early 2000s when they first moved to Woodside Village senior housing in Edgartown. They find it useful in their everyday lives. “We can go to a restaurant and I can tell him what the waitress said,” Thorp explained. “It can bridge gaps, you can use it in loud places. You can make it more useful even for hearing people.”

Something she wanted to learn more about turned into a real passion. Last month Thorp spent time on the Island with a small group from Clemson University who are working to make ASL more visible. A couple of students and their professor and his wife were able to visit as tourists while they were here, and they created a video they hope will help folks understand how significant sign language can be, and how it could help everyone be more welcoming to those who are deaf and hard of hearing in the Island community, and for those who visit. Thorp said Martha’s Vineyard is a tourist destination for deaf and hard of hearing from around the world.

Thorp has shared her knowledge about sign language with the community by facilitating “Martha’s Vineyard Signs Then and Now” at the West Tisbury library, through programming on MVTV, and with the sign language group at Woodside, even though its numbers waxed and waned over the years. Thorp was an integral part of bringing a sign language class to Sue Costello’s sixth grade students at the Edgartown School as well. The Island students learned key sign language lessons via remote learning from a class of high schoolers in New Jersey. (You can visit MVTV at to learn more about that program.) Thorp sees ASL as a valuable tool for communication, and her ultimate goal is to encourage signing as a second language on the Island, just as it was years ago.

“The VNA could use it for simple things like, Does it hurt, do you feel sick, do you need to go to the bathroom, do you need something to eat? You could teach those signs over the course of a week. It could be used at the hospital, at Windemere, for people with throat problems, with Down syndrome, autism, and more. There are a number of developmental challenges that could use this form of communication. We have a housekeeper who is Portuguese we can use sign language with, also with builders. It could be a simple way to connect.”

She has two projects she’s working on now — her perpetual calendar, which is filled with history as well as the ASL alphabet, and to make a news program for the deaf and hard of hearing more visible. (You can find more information on the Daily Moth, a news program for deaf and hard of hearing, here:

Thorp said she is very interested in finding out if there are people in the Island community who are interested in helping break down the communication barriers that separate us by learning manual sign language and some basic signs to begin building those bridges. Folks could begin by learning to help those with voice and developmental challenges in their own families and circle of friends, Thorp says.

“We could encourage Island business people to give feedback to the idea of reaching out to their deaf and ASL-signing tourists and visitors with basic signs to welcome them and at least be able to say, ‘I don’t sign, but here’s a pen and paper,’ and offer them fliers with accommodations, events, links, and lists of things to do that are especially fitting for the deaf community.”

If you would like to learn more about sign language or to help Thorp with her work, email her at



  1. Thank you so much Lynn! This is a great idea and very needed in our community. You are so lovely, caring and giving and the perfect person to lead this cause. ❤️

Comments are closed.