The Deaf Cultural Center, or William J. Marra Museum of Deaf History and Deaf Culture, is on the campus of the Kansas School for the Deaf in Olathe, Kansas. The museum tells both the story of the Deaf and deaf (more on that later) experience and about the history of the Kansas School for the Deaf. It is also now known as the Museum of Deaf History, Arts & Culture.
When driving from any direction on Santa Fe, the main downtown street, be sure to ignore the signs and turn onto State Street Street. Then, turn right on Park and go down to the next available street and turn left. The museum is in a one-story building across the street from the school. (We turned into the school’s parking lot by mistake off Santa Fe and had to turn around).
The parking lot is behind the museum. Limited street parking is available during school hours. Turn left on Emery Street, and the parking lot is on the left-hand side.
The museum is not too long and not too short. You can tour the two exhibit halls and just the exhibit materials and memorabilia from the early days of the school. You can also watch videos that are set up to tell you about the Deaf experience, memories of growing up Deaf, memories of the school, etc.
Their current featured exhibit is about the history of American Sign Language. American Sign Language uses an elaborate variation of signs made with the hands, facial expression, and body language. Signs representing characters of the English alphabet are commonly learned in public schools. Unlike with English, specific signs convey entire statements rather than one or two characters. For example, a sweep of the left hand from the forehead down means “You are welcome.” There is no need for three separate signs or spelling out of the words. The language sometimes has more in common with Japanese kanji than with English.
The museum has a special place in my heart due to my own story. I was born deaf, although it was not discovered until I was around two years old. My pediatrician told my parents that I wasn’t ignoring them when they called me and that he saw I was reading lips and body language. I was lucky; it was caught early. No-one knows what caused it, but the massive build-up of fluid in the ears had caused extensive nerve damage. Many surgeries later, I was able to hear about 70% in one ear and nothing in the other.
I attended public school and even participated in speech and debate in high school and college. Some ability has deteriorated over the years. I am thankful that I can still hear birds chirping, conversation, and music. Get me in a crowded room, however, and I will completely zone out if I can’t see your lips to read them. I am what is defines as deaf or hard of hearing.
People who are deaf are more likely to speak fluently, without sign language, and identify more with the hearing community than that of the Deaf. Deaf (capital D) is a culture. It’s a community of people who have been deaf or hard of hearing since early childhood that uses American Sign Language. It is often their first language. They attend schools for the deaf, like the Kansas School for the Deaf. Simply put, deaf people are oral communicators, and Deaf people are visual—using signs, lip reading, and visual skills.
If you are in the Kansas City, Missouri, area, it can be a bit of a trek. However, it is an excellent opportunity to experience another culture that transcends boundaries of race, region, country, or geography. There is no entry fee, but donations are much appreciated.
455 East Park Street, Olathe, Kansas 66061
To learn more, visit the Museum of Deaf History, Arts & Culture.