Tracing the Steps of a Deaf Leader through France

View of the Arc de Triomphe on a bright day
"Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel 001" by Moonik - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution
Rebecca Epple shares how she developed an educational exchange for her students to France, the birthplace of Laurent Clerc.

As a teacher at the Wisconsin School for the Deaf, my students started a project to assist their peers who struggle with reading. Although my students are fluent English readers, the vast majority of the school’s freshmen students are English Language Learners who cannot read at the 9th grade level, which makes novels used for course curricula inaccessible to them.

At the time, the curriculum included a novel about Laurent Clerc, a man who worked to establish the first school for the Deaf in America. As an alternative to reading material, my students used some of their class time and free time to develop a documentary-style educational movie based on the young life of Mr. Clerc.

After working on producing the documentary, this talented group of freshmen inquired about the possibility of traveling to Mr. Clerc’s hometown. After all, Mr. Clerc unified the American Deaf community and American Sign Language (ASL). His work led to the establishment of numerous Deaf schools and the Deaf Education system as we know them today. He empowered a Deaf community which leads the world.

"It was the dream of the students, who had no prior international exchange experience, to put into action what they learned from the curriculum and from making the movie. They wanted to connect with Deaf students in Paris to reciprocate the dream that led Laurent Clerc from France to the USA."

I checked with various educational travel companies and discovered that the best route would be to establish my own guided tour package along with establishing a short student exchange program.

My goal was to focus on a Deaf Heritage-style tour with all Deaf French guides, visit Deaf schools and interact with Deaf French citizens. I did not want any interpreters whether ASL or French Sign Language users, as that would interfere with a true and authentic cultural and linguistic experience. I wanted all of the information to be communicated directly to the students in a language they could access without barriers, touching the core foundation of the student's own Deaf culture and identity.

I contacted the American School for the Deaf (ASD) in Hartford, Connecticut for feedback and ideas, since they have conducted an exchange program with the Paris Deaf School for over 25 years. They provided me with the network infrastructure for visiting and touring INJS, which is the Deaf school in downtown Paris, and the first of its kind in the world. INJS tends to limit visitors as they receive thousands of requests annually, so it was great that ASD could facilitate that connection.

ASD also helped provide names of the tour guides at the school. One very good friend of mine put me in direct contact with the La Balme Laurent Clerc Association president and various board members for the association and Clerc museum tours. He also suggested names for the city of Paris tour guides. I created my own travel liability forms and had the local travel agent give me her opinion.

After thousands of hours of planning and prep work, as well as teaching my students written French and French Sign Language during their lunch hour, we took flight in March on an experience of a lifetime!

Our week-long trip would take us to "all things Laurent Clerc": His birthplace, house, town, church, caves, museum and the association named in his honor. The students had a fabulous time interacting and actually communicating in French Sign Language with the Laurent Clerc Association Board of Directors during our day-long tour of the town. We visited Mr. Clerc's Deaf school in Paris where he grew up as well as another smaller Deaf school with which we established the exchange. 

On two other full days of our trip I had scheduled all French Deaf tour guides for visiting the home of the first priest who founded the world's first Deaf school in Paris. We visited the various art museums and took a private tour at Versailles - both in town and at the castle.

Prior to our trip, the students had spent a large portion of time planning and choosing the attractions and places to visit, which tended to be related to history and military topics as opposed to art or fashion.

After the first few days of getting acquainted with the metro while in Paris, the students became the guides! They chose the restaurants, managed their own budget with assistance, and were expected to communicate (in gestures) for all of their daily needs such as ordering food, buying tickets, figuring out metro lines, and locating places as much as possible. They were also responsible for providing the narration for our movie clips and taking turns filming. They wrote post cards to most of our sponsors, especially to the individual people who donated.

"All of our guides were Deaf, and most used only French Sign Language (LSF) and Universal Gestural Communication. We asked them to use LSF as much as possible so we could get the experience and exposure."

We had no problems communicating with the French people! Many could write English extremely well but we did try using gestures as much as possible. One day, we walked into a store to buy some bottled water and gestured to one another in the store. To our surprise, there was a Deaf Parisian student working there who started signing to us in LSF! We had a great visit with him!

Also, outside our hotel is a park where people play a game called boules. We went to watch some elderly men play one morning on the walk to the metro. They saw us signing and came over to introduce themselves! One of them had a Deaf grandson and told us about a Deaf cafe a few blocks from our hotel. What a small friendly world!

The students had an extraordinary time and begged to stay longer or return again. One of the students states that he had the time of his life and has a goal of setting up a reunion trip with or without my assistance in five years. He and the others are going to do the same route as a college graduation reward! He is inspired by the visit and hopes to travel to other countries, especially China, Japan, India, and South America.

To see these students have the time of their lives was so inspiring. As someone who has traveled extensively, I am thrilled that I survived the challenge and marvel over the future impacts. We look forward to many more of these types of exchanges in the next years and will host incoming students every other year.

My advice for anyone considering a similar exchange is to remember that the native Deaf people of that country are your best resources. They are eager to be employed and thrilled to do so. They face different challenges than we Americans so definitely hire them for guides. You will be thrilled with the experience of interacting with them. 

Rebecca Epple is an extensive traveler who grew up hard of hearing and is now profoundly Deaf. Growing up, she participated in international youth exchange programs and went on to participate in a teacher exchange to Japan through the Fulbright Memorial Fund Teacher Program. After graduating from Gallaudet University with an M.A. in Deaf Education, she began teaching at the Wisconsin School for the Deaf.


Rebecca Epple