Number 54 • January 2015

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Marie’s Story:

A new film about a congenitally deafblind girl considered France’s Helen Keller

Marie’s story1 is based on real life events that took place in France in the late 19th century. Born deaf and blind, Marie Heurtin, aged 14, is incapable of communicating. Despite the advice of a doctor who believes she is “dumb”, Marie’s father, a humble artisan, cannot bring himself to commit her to an asylum. Out of despair, he goes to Larnay Institute2 near Poitiers, where nuns take care of young deaf women.

Despite the Mother Superior’s scepticism, Sister Marguerite, a young nun, takes this “wild little animal” under her wing and does everything she can to bring her out of her darkness. She will succeed, in spite of some failures and the temptation of discouragement, armed with her joyous faith and love for young Marie.

Historical facts

In the second half of the 19th century, The Larnay Institute, a convent near Poitiers directed by the “Sisters of Wisdom”, brought together a group of deaf-blind children to give them an education and teach them to communicate through sign language.

Larnay gained worldwide renown after the publication of Louis Arnould’s “A Soul in Prison” in which he graphically described the method pursued by Sister Marguerite for the education of Marie Heurtin, deafmute and blind by birth.

Marie Heurtin, often seen as the French Hellen Keller, arrived at Larnay in March 1895 at the age of 10. She was in an even worse state than the American girl: struggling and howling like a wild child, carried by her arms and feet, it was impossible to predict if she could learn anything and how, since she had neither sight, hearing nor power of speech.

Comments by Director Jean-Pierre Améris

This project began with my fascination for the story of Helen Keller. In my research, I came across the lesser known story of Marie Heurtin and I immediately decided to visit the Larnay Institute in Poitiers, where she lived in the 19th century.

The Insitute is no longer a religious establishment, yet remains a center for deafblind children. In light of the scientific progress of the last hundred years, I was surprised to find that the institute was still in operation.

It is difficult for me to describe how I felt when I met these children who could only communicate by touch and who were eager to feel my hands and face as soon as I arrived. I felt quite powerless trying to communicate with them.
I also met these children’s parents who explained the challenges they faced.

Exactly like Marie Heurtin’s father over a century ago, some were told by doctors that their child was mentally challenged and would never be able to communicate.

The parents despair ended when they were introduced to the instructors of the Larnay Institute who taught their children how to make contact with the world.
Jacques Souriau (
1 Written by Jean-Pierre Améris and Philippe Blasband
2 Poitiers ... / ... biard

Tactile street name signs1

One way in which people who are deafblind can find their way around the City of Sydney, Australia, is by the network of tactile street name signs.

The signs were originally developed in 1991 by Sydney City Council with the assistance of the Association of Blind Citizens New South Wales2, to help people with vision impairment find their way around the City.

Rubber was selected as the base material at the time in preference to metal or plastic, as metal can become very hot in the middle of summer, and some plastics do not provide sufficient tactility, or they reflect light so that the message becomes blurred.

The City of Sydney Council has decided to up-grade the tactile signs and is currently testing a new material, lightweight aluminium with a photopolymer membrane.

The signs carry the street name and property numbers in raised lettering and in Braille, with white text on a black background. They are always found on the right-hand side of a traffic light pole as the reader faces the curb, adjacent to the audio-tactile pedestrian button and approximately one metre above the pavement.

This location allows easy access to the signs for people who touch-read, and for people with low vision who can read the sign at close range. As Braille is an international form of reading, visitors are able to find their way around the City of Sydney.

The sign in the photograph reads “Margaret St 42 – 60 L”. This indicates that the reader is facing the curb in Margaret Street while standing in front of property number 42, and that property number 60 is to the L (left). At the other end of this city block the sign reads, “Margaret St 60 – 42 R”, to indicate that the reader is standing in front of property number 60 and that property number 42 is to R (right).

Although the signs were originally developed for people with vision impairment, it has been discovered that they also provide independence and dignity for people who have speech and hearing impairments, as they may not be able to ask for directions or hear the answer.

At a time when there is growing interest in Universal Design3 it is hoped that other Cities might adopt a network of tactile street name signs similar to Sydney.

For more information contact: John Evernden, Accessible Public Domain



1 Part of presentation made at 9th National Deafblind Conference, Sydney, Australia, June 2014
3 Universal design (often inclusive design) refers to broad-spectrum ideas
meant to produce buildings, products and environments that are inherently accessible to older people, people without disabilities, and people with disabilities.

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