L'Abbé de l'Épée, a story that must be told

In 1756, the first real public school for the deaf was founded by l'Abbé de l'Épée. However, the battle for the education of the deaf and hard of hearing was not won...

Sign language was invented in the 16th century. The Benedictine monk Pedro Ponce de Leon (a Spaniard) was the initiator. However, it was not until 1756 that the first real public school for the deaf was founded by l'Abbé de l'Epée. He went against the thinking of his time and fought for the education of the deaf by legitimising this method of communication. Mainstream thinking advocated pure oralism as a method of eradicating deafness. Following the same logic, sign language was banned in France from 1880 to 1977 (more than a century), forcing the deaf and hard of hearing to use pure oral language (without any aids or visual support). The French encyclopaedia defines oralism as "a method of teaching deaf people oral (spoken) language. Oralisation is the deaf person's ability to express themselves verbally". Oralism is thus an adaptation of the deaf to the hearing. This led to a more difficult education for these deaf people, who were deprived of any adapted education and were often wrongly regarded as simple-minded people. It was not until 1977 that sign language was allowed again in France. In Belgium, it was officially recognised by the decree of 22 October 2003 of the Government of the French Community. Unfortunately, it is not yet recognised in all countries of the world.

Of course, sign language did not disappear for 100 years: it was practised in secret. In 1991, teachers started signing. Today, and since the year 2000, one school in Belgium stands out for its avant-garde approach. The Sainte-Marie school in Namur, with the help of the École et Surdité association and under the supervision of the University of Namur, allows deaf and hearing pupils to mix and thus offers a quality bilingual (French and sign language) and inclusive education. On the website of the Institut Sainte-Marie, the pedagogical approach is explained as follows: "a minority (some deaf or hard of hearing pupils) is reconstructed within the predominantly hearing class group. The deaf pupil is thus directly confronted with what his or her life will be like outside school: life among a majority of fellow citizens who speak and hear French. The whole upbringing and pedagogical system that has been set up allows him to experience his hearing impairment unhindered and to test his limits and possibilities. The only disadvantage is that it is the only one of its kind in Belgium and only offers general training. This institute lacks the freedom to choose the options for deaf children: technical transition, technical qualification and professionalisation.

There is still a lot of progress to be made in the field of education in order to catch up with the backlog that this century of prohibitions has caused.

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