First Deaf Heritage Day at Conner Prairie

FISHERS, Ind. – The Indiana School for the Deaf is one of the first schools for the Deaf founded by a Deaf man—William Willard. The school is world-renowned, and many people from all over the world move to Indiana just to enroll their children in the school.

But the history of the Deaf community in our city isn’t that well-known to everyone. Conner Prairie is looking to change that with the very first Deaf Heritage Day on September 28.

“Conner Prairie has been reaching out in the community and really looking at how we expand our audiences but also really reaching into communities that are coming to Conner Prairie,” said Richard Cooper, Vice President and Chief Programs Officer with Conner Prairie. “But we haven’t really put all of our resources behind those efforts. We’ve created a diversity of inclusion accessibility promise statement that we’re really trying to open our doors to everyone in the community.”

Deaf Heritage Day is all about inclusion and letting everyone into the rich history of the Deaf community and the Indiana School for the Deaf. The message the Deaf community wants the hearing community to know is very clear: they are here, and their culture is worth learning about.

“It’s a very unique culture; the Deaf community has their own culture,” said Gabriel Paulone. He’s a U.S. History teacher at ISD. “Typically, culture is related to race, foods and other aspects in language. However, the Deaf community has the one identifying marker which doesn’t have to do with race, it has to do with language.”

That language is American Sign Language. It’s estimated around 250,000 to half a million people around the world use it. It’s a language not everyone understands, even if they are Deaf, and it’s not always taught in schools.

“I’m excited to be part of a school where they establish the bilingual education philosophy, which is teaching English and ASL to the students,” said Paulone. “And at the time it was not a popular opinion, so it’s really morphed the environment.”

ASL is a beautiful, complex and powerful language that unites everyone in the Deaf community.

“It unites us all, we’re all deaf and we all use ASL, American Sign Language, and we’re so proud of that,” said Paulone. “Without American Sign Language there would be no Deaf culture, so exposing people to American Sign Language as our torch for the community and really throughout the world.”

Conner Prairie teamed up with the Indiana School for the Deaf and LUNA Language Services to host Deaf Heritage Day to let the hearing community into their world. The staff will transform the iconic school house into an exhibit that talks about the history of the Indiana School for the Deaf.

On September 28th, visitors to the museum will be greeted by an ASL interpreter, a student from ISD and a staff member from Conner Prairie. There will also be Deaf actors at the school house to talk about the history of the school in the 1800s.

Nia Voss is a student at ISD and was chosen to be a Deaf actor for the day. She says the history of the school has always been important to her and she’s excited to share it with others.

“Well, it’s really phenomenal because those kinds of things don’t happen very often; people don’t often get to learn about Deaf history, so it’s pretty cool,” said Voss.

For many students and staff at ISD, the school is more than just a place to teach and learn.

“The Deaf school is a beacon of hope for Deaf students,” said Paulone. “There are a lot of Deaf schools across the country that are in decline or have closed, so we are a beacon of hope, and I hope that it brings knowledge to people out there and exposure to ASL and how much Deaf individuals benefit from the use of ASL.”

And for everyone at ISD, Deaf Heritage Day is much more than just an exhibit or just a day.

Kristina Johnson is the Program Coordinator for Applied Learning at ISD and the Director for the Indiana Deaf Museum. She says it’s important that the Deaf community have representation.

“It’s good for the hearing public to know that Deaf people are here, but it’s also so important for Deaf people to see themselves represented in museums,” said Johnson. “So, it’s true of any culture: black history, Hispanic history, Jewish history—we need to show all of that in every museum because people from every background exist in every community.”

ISD says there is still a long way to go to make the Deaf community all-inclusive with the hearing community. Deaf Heritage Day at Conner Prairie is opening the door for that.

“One of my visions for this entire project was, if it was popular enough and people were engaged enough that something like this could even lead to Deaf employment,” said Rebecca Buchan, Director of ASL services at LUNA. “Which I am thrilled about—getting Deaf people in and telling their own story at Conner Prairie? That’s amazing.”

But after this event, it’s up to us to keep the door open.

Deaf Heritage Day is September 28 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The exhibit on the Indiana School for the Deaf will remain at the schoolhouse after that, but the full experience will only be there for one day only.

For more on Deaf Heritage Day, click here.

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