Estela Cardoso’s Journey

The Island’s deaf community of the past inspired her progress along the way.


Estela Cardoso, who is deaf and lives on the Vineyard, lives at the crossroads of the Island’s history with the historic deaf community and contemporary Island life, where there are few deaf people and no community to speak of.

The Vineyard’s deaf history began in 1694, when Englishman Jonathan Lambert introduced the hereditary gene for deafness after arriving with his family, including two deaf children. It is thought that they brought a regional sign language from Kent with them.

By the mid-1850s, one in every 25 people in Chilmark was born deaf, compared to one in nearly 6,000 in the country. Deaf Vineyarders weren’t considered disabled, but were wholly integrated into Island life. They owned farms, ran businesses, and served in town government. It was typical for deaf and hearing alike to use what had become a sign language unique to the Island. Over time, deaf signers moved off the Island, and by 1952, the use of the Martha’s Vineyard version of signed language died out.

Not everyone knew of this deaf history when Cardoso arrived with her family at 10 years old from a small Brazilian village, Mantenóplis, in Espírito Santo. Communicating through email about her journey, Cardoso began with her early years in Brazil.

She was born deaf after her mother contracted rubella while pregnant. Growing up, Cardoso mostly had to rely on gestures and pointing, as her family only knew a bit of finger spelling. “Sometimes, I had problems or misunderstood,” she writes. “I had no friends in Brazil. When I was 4, I went to the elementary school in Mantenópolis. The teacher was not good in Brazilian Sign Language, and only knew numbers and the alphabet.”

Cardoso’s parents happened to hear about the Island from a friend of a friend who lived here, and came, hoping to improve their daughter’s options. “Brazil’s education system for disabled people at the time was not good, and there was only one deaf institute, but it was too far away for my parents’ liking. So moving to America was thought to be the best option. They spoke some English, and were able to find jobs and a house.”

“My first memory of America was when we landed and left the airport and saw snow on the ground. It was the first time I had seen snow outside of Christmas movies, and I was so mesmerized by it that I cried. Winter has a special place in my heart ever since.”

When Cardoso entered the Oak Bluffs School, she was the sole deaf person, couldn’t read or write English, and knew very little signed language. However, the school knew a year ahead that she was coming, and had a few teachers and students learn American Sign Language (ASL). They also hired an interpreter to tutor Cardoso one-on-one in English reading and writing and signed language. “I didn’t know ASL then, so I was overwhelmed — but also awed and inspired.”

The students who had learned to sign helped out as well: “Whenever my interpreter was absent, which thankfully didn’t happen a lot, those students would try their best to make sure I was included in what the class was learning.” Craving connection, Cardoso recalls, “I remember seeing kids at recess, and going up to a kid for the first time and asking if they wanted to play with me and if they wanted to be my friend. In Brazil, I didn’t have any friends, so it was really exciting to communicate and share.”

During middle school, Cardoso transferred to a public school on Cape Cod where there were other deaf students, but felt she was getting left behind. The other deaf students had grown up with ASL and with one another: “I was still behind in learning English and catching up on all my elementary school years. It was also my first time without individual time with teachers, or the tutoring that was provided for me in Martha’s Vineyard.”

After two years, Cardoso transferred back to the Island for high school, and caught up after reconnecting with old classmates and her interpreter. It was her interpreter who first told her about the Island’s deaf history: “I had no idea, and we tumbled into a 20-minute-long discussion about it. Then, one of my former elementary school interpreters became the drama teacher at the high school, and she showed a couple of films about deaf history, ASL, and discrimination.”

Cardoso continues, “I was amazed and started feeling like I could do anything anyone else could except hear. I felt inspired by the history of the language and people like me, and found it so beautiful. It didn’t really inspire me to do anything but be myself. I’m a deaf Brazilian woman, and I’m proud of that.”

During high school, the principal, her interpreter, and school friends encouraged Cardoso to look into American deaf schools, particularly the American School for the Deaf, because of its rich history with the Island’s deaf population in years past. Starting in 1820, deaf students from the Vineyard began attending the school, bringing the signed language used here with them. Some of it is believed to have become incorporated into ASL.

Visiting the school, Cardoso was shocked: “It was my first time seeing so many deaf people at once. So I transferred there and stayed until graduation at 21. After, I came back home to Martha’s Vineyard with a new outlook on life as a deaf person in a hearing world. Two deaf ASL teachers invited me to the Oak Bluffs library to have group chats with students learning ASL, and to the high school, where they taught the students how to talk to a deaf person. I recall one student who progressed better after only a couple of our talks. I felt very proud of them and myself. It was a good experience.”

Teaching remains a part of Cardoso’s life. Recently, she met Lynn Thorp, director and producer of MV Signs Then & Now, who has been working assiduously since 2016 to raise awareness of Martha’s Vineyard’s early history of the signed language community and encourage a signed language revival on the Island.

Cardoso helps Thorp at the Oak Bluffs library in the ASL practice group that meets every Tuesday at 5 pm. She also has participated in another of Thorp’s endeavors, a collaboration with Clemson University that is revitalizing the Island’s deaf history.

The connection began in 2020 when Professor Jody Cripps from Clemson University read an article in The MV Times about Thorp’s efforts. Dr. Cripps explained in an email that he and his wife felt a special tie to the Vineyard, and chose to marry at the East Chop Lighthouse in 2015: “The main reason for our wedding at Martha’s Vineyard was because we believe in the concept of a shared signing community where deaf and hearing people speak signed language. We know that this social phenomenon happened in the past. Since Lynn and others are reviving it, my wife suggested that I contact her and see if there is anything that we can do to help.”

What evolved is an ongoing relationship where Cripps brings his undergraduate cohorts of ASL students to the Vineyard to conduct research and help spread ASL to the wider community. Just a few of their endeavors include conducting archival research with the Island’s librarians, identifying old gravestones of deaf Vineyarders at Abel’s Hill cemetery, working with MVTV to provide programs that include signed language, and creating signed language webinars that the Chamber of Commerce plans to post on its website.

As part of their recent visit, Thorp arranged for the students and Cripps to meet with Vineyarders at the Oak Bluffs library, and subsequently helped Cripps’ students improve their ASL.

Cardoso reflects on her life and teaching: “I can’t imagine what my life would have been like if I continued on the path I was on as a 10-year-old deaf kid who didn’t know how to communicate with anyone, not even myself. Seeing people learning how to sign gives me a sense of unity. I was once in their shoes, and it was difficult, but I became fluent with time, patience, and friendly help. I know that all these students have the capability to do so, too.”

When asked about navigating daily life here, Cardoso explains, “It’s a little difficult for me. When people speak to me, I can’t hear. I can lip-read, but I don’t like it, or I miss some words. I tell them to text or write on paper. I am always patient with hearing people.”

We asked Cardoso about what her goals are for the future. “I hope to one day become an interior designer or nurse,” she wrote. “The biggest problem I have is communicating with hearing people. Yes, I know the language, but I don’t speak it, and that throws people off and makes them uncomfortable. So, for now, I am endeavoring to make people more comfortable with deafness.”

Her life has been a real journey — from Brazil to Martha’s Vineyard, and from little communication to adapting and learning a new way to communicate. “I love my family. I am grateful to [them for bringing] me here for a better life and learning how to sign over the years. I feel different and better than before.”


The Oak Bluffs library ASL practice group meets Tuesdays at 5 pm, and is free for adults and children.