♦ The Deaf Population
During the French Revolution
The French Revolution of 1789 marked a very special time in the history of the French deaf population for at least three reasons.
First, the Revolution fostered a heady brew of ideas and opinions. From the heart of the common folk, to genteel drawing rooms, to the National Assembly, diverse questions were raised, particularly the question of power. Who has retained power ? On what basis can we evaluate his legitimacy ? These ideas could not help influencing deaf people, who also were caught up in the furor and excitement of the times.
Second, reforms inspired by this swell of ideas and debate affected economic policy as well as politics. It is fairly obvious that deaf people were not the only group finding it hard to make ends meet. The privileged nobility and high clergy, representing only 2 percent of the French population – consisting of peasants – faced severe trials : famine, insufficient harvests, disastrous weather. Deaf people did not escape these difficulties, their situation was closely linked to the general hardships of the period and to those limited rights society granted them.
Third, institutional reforms, including the creation of national institutions for deaf people and the proliferation of private establishments, drastically altered deaf people’s place in society and their future potential.
These changes were not spontaneous ; they had been simmering a long time before the revolution exploded. Much of the foundations for change can be attributed to the work of the Abbé de l’Épée, a man who earned his reputation through his works and to whom deaf people worldwide pay tribute.
The Abbé de l’Épée created his own school for deaf students in 1760. For twenty-nine years, he tirelessly instructed up to seventy pupils at a time. He did not hesitate to invest his own personal fortune in his school, which remained solvent thanks also to gifts from individuals and grants provided by King Louis XVI. De l’Épée died on Decembre 23, 1789 at the age of seventy-seven, shortly following the storming of the Bastille and the declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizenry.
De l’Épée was an innovator in several ways.
First, he united deaf people by directing his instruction toward a group, rather than isolated individuals. Unlike most of the teachers of deaf students that preceded him, such as J. R. Pereire, de l’Épée did everything he could to bring large numbers of deaf students together. He expected noteworthy improvement in his students’ comprehension levels because of their ability to discuss with each other the information he provided. He also expected students to fell less isolated in an environment that enhanced their communication and interaction.
Second, de l’Épée supported the idea that public educators must be made available to all children, regardless of social status. He courageously defended public education against the elitist education of the clergy and nobility. De l’Épée was a Jansenist Catholic whose ideas were controversial and who was destined to suffer for his ideological commitment. However, by the middle of the eighteenth century, the idea of popular education had began to make headway in France, not only with the Encyclopaedists, but also in practical application. By establishing the Committee of Public Education, the French Revolution gave support to the realization of these ideas.
Lastby, de l’Épée emphasized the importance of using sign language to instruct his students. His attempts to « reform » natural sign language, however, were controversial. Trained as a grammarian, de l’Épée had as his goal to systematize and formalize this unwritten language. He was convinced he could apply the basic structures of grammatical French to sign language by means of methodical signs, which he invented. But that is irrelevant in my opinion. The essential point is that he recognized the existence of sign language and the key role it had to play in teaching deaf children.
At the time de l’Épée died, the French Revolution was well under way. The Revolution took up his three causes – the deaf community, public education, and sign language – and tried to implement them.
With respect to the deaf community, the revolutionaries supported the idea that deaf people were the authentic social group in their own right and should not be treated as isolated individuals. National representatives often used the term « disadvantaged class » or « so singular a disinherited class » to designate the deaf population. Reforms were aimed at these « orphans of nature » as a social group, not just as individuals.
Deaf people also began expressing themselves and recognizing their cultural identity. For example, a deaf man named Desloges, of whom I will speak again later, considered his peers to be members of a foreign nation whose language it was useful to know.
Simultaneously, the idea of deaf citizenship was gaining ground. A memorable speech was presented by a deputy at the deathbed of de l’Épée. « Die in peace – your fatherland will adopt your children ». These children, of course, were the deaf members of the population, who like all citizens, are « sons and daughters » of their fatherland. De l’Épée was the foster father of these « orphans of nature ». It was now up to the nation, with its patriarchal power, to substitute for him after his death. Deaf people, like hearing people, became children/citizens of the great family/nation.
The first public institution to specialize in serving deaf individuals was founded in Paris on July 21, 1791. A second opened in Bordeaux two years later. Operation of these institutions gradually came under government control. The Abbé Sicard was named head schoolmaster (director) of the Parisian establishment after review of academicians and prominent citizens. A tribunal procedure was also used for the nomination of the staff, financial administration, student admissions, and determination of initial administrative policy, all of which under the juridiction of the Ministry of the Interior.
But the creation of these institutions was accompanied by obstacles that had to be overcome. The first challenge was to define the primary purpose of the institutions. Most of the deaf students were destitute. Should they receive money to help them survive ? Should they receive temporary shelter ? Or should they be provided with sufficient education to enable them to acquire a profitable trade ? In other words, which was it to be, charity or instruction ?
Deputy Raffron supported the position of providing financial assistance. Speaking before the National Convention on February 1, 1794, after the institutions had been in operation for more than two years (but voicing an opinion that predated even the revolution), Raffron claimed, « Deaf people are born speechless, they will die speechless. That is how Nature wanted it. » Instructing deaf people was useless, he said, particularly because the nation was not lacking in educated people. He added that living conditions were very difficult in the new boarding schools (which was true) and that the purpose of these institutions was to assist the poor but not to flatter national pride. Consequently, it made more sense to offer deaf pupils financial support and then send them back to their homes.
As you may suspect, this view point was not adopted, and the idea of instructing deaf students developped in progressive stages. But the charitable idea did not totally evaporate, as evidenced today by the National Institute of Paris for Young Deaf Personns, which is a branch of the Ministry of Solidarity, not of the Ministry of National Education.
The second problem was the one observed by Raffron. Living conditions in the two schools were harsh. Sometimes the students had nothing to eat or wear. They lacked heat during harsh winters, were assailed by epidemics, and sometimes died at the institution. Moreover, as boarders, they were totally cut off from their relatives. The young deaf students had to put their courage to the test to survive revolutionary times.
Last, the institution in Paris was originally associated with the National Institute of Blind Workers. The two schools shared the same premises – the former Célestins convent near the Bastille. It was only in 1794 that the two groups were geographically separated and the deaf students were perceived as a separate group.
At the time of the French Revolution, cultural perceptions of deaf people ran the gamut from savages, to children, to animals, to soulless machines. Numerous references expressed popular cultural peceptions of that period.
– The deaf individual was perceived as a savage – that is to say, as a radically different and singular being, as strange as the « savages » met by Bougainville or Cook in their far-off expeditions.
– Deaf people were perceived as children because civilization supposedly could not influence their nature. For example, Lanjuinais, a member of the Council of Five Hundred (« Conseil des Cinq-Cents »), in 1796 suggested that deaf people be included in the legal category of minors.
– Deaf individuals were compared to animals because they did not possess speech (oral language), which would legitimize their relationship with humanity.
– Finally, deaf people were perceived to be machine-like. The theories of the philosophers Locke and Condillac, accorded an essential role to the physical senses. From this viewpoint, deaf people would be comparable to soulless machines because they had been deprived of one of their senses.
These perceptions also involved sign language, a living image of thought (according to Talleyrand) and a direct expression of nature (according to Abbot Grégoire) that supposedly appeared on earth before the advent of oral language. This idea pleased some, who imagined that they could use sign language as a model for the reform of the French language. Others were distressed and wanted, in the name of French culture, to suppress the animality that this idea appeared to suggest. The conflicting perceptions of sign language deserve more detailed study. For two centuries, they have continued to influence successive policies governing the role to be played by sign language in everyday life and education.
Before concluding, I would like to share some overall thoughts on the status of the deaf population at the time of the French Revolution.
Originally, the founding of deaf schools was not of primary importance to deaf individuals, who had long been struggling to survive, to unite, to instruct themselves, and to learn a trade – all without the official intervention of hearing people. Several testimonies concur on this point. In March 1794, in the National Assembly, Deputy Thibaudeau reviewed the situation of deaf people working in print shops. Deputy Roger-Ducos cited cases of deaf people working as painters, silk-winders, hat-sellers, gardeners, fabric manufacturers, designers, sculptors, dressmakers, and embroiders.
Before and during the revolution, there were two paths oped to deaf people. Some, the smaller number, went through the schools that were set up for them. The others, the majority, by far, did not have any formal education, although this did not always prevent them from practising a trade. Two deaf men illustrate clearly these two paths, Deseine and Desloges.
Deseine, educated by l’Abbé de l’Épée, was a sculptor who enjoyed a certain notoriety. In contrast to his brother (also a sculptor, but hearing and a royalist), Deseine embraced the ideals of the revolution. Among other subjects, Deseine sculpted busts of Mirabeau and Robespierre, which he presented to the national Assembly. For Danton, he sculpted a bust of Mrs. Danton, who had just died.
Desloges, on the other hand, was never a student of l’Abbé de l’Épée. He was a bookbinder and furniture-paper decorator. He left behind a beautiful volume, published in 1779 (and which I recommend that you read), in which he describes the situation of his peers, their way of life, and their trades. It is interesting to note that deaf people of this time preferred to live in the city rather than in the country, where they felt isolated from the deaf community.
The life of Deseine and the work of Desloges are evidence that deaf people were struggling for meaningful integration into society and against the marginalization that menaced them.
If deaf people did not wait for the hearing society to concern itself with their fate and transform it into a national cause, it was also because the newly created schools could not meet their needs. Academic structures and vocational learning workshops were not immediately operational, and they did not provide effective training.
During the French Revolution, deaf individuals in these schools were in an unusual position. Because they were children or adolescents relating to adults, and because they were governed by hearing people, they had practically no power to make their own decisions. They were dependent upon the good will of hearing people. Outside of the institutions, however, deaf people were struggling and going on strike in the print shops. Major political policies on deafness, of course, were still determinated by the nation’s representatives, all hearing people.
Deaf people also suffered in the numerous conflicts between the two schools in Paris and Bordeaux, which marked the first ten years of their existence. Manipulated like pawns in a mysterious strategy, young deaf people were often exploited. Public performances depicting Sicard’s efforts from Paris to undermine the authority of the Bordeaux school director (by inciting his best pupils to leave) serve as evidence that deaf people were oppressed.
But there is a reverse side to the story. Deaf students strove to protect their schools – even to expand them. Jean Massieu, the best-known deaf instructor at the time of the French Revolution, led deaf student delegations to demand the release of Sicard, who had been imprisoned several times for his Royalist opinions. Deaf people banded together to defend not only themselves but their institutions. These pupils, the triumphant generation of the revolutionary period, included some of the future stars of deaf movement : Laurent Clerc, Ferdinand Berthier, Claudius Forestier, and Pelissier among numerous others.
It was the French Revolution that galvanized this movement toward acceptance of deaf education and culture. Today, the national institutes are still extraordinary schools. They are the privileged (but not exclusive) sites of deaf association meetings and of the cultural and political expressions of the deaf community.


(The Deaf Way, Perspectives from the International Conference on Deaf Culture held in Washington, D. C., July 9-14, 1989, Carol Erting, Robert C. Johnson, Dorothy L. Smith, Bruce D. Snider Editors, Gallaudet University Press, Washington D. C., 1994, pp. 162-166).