Sur le principe de la conception universelle, Simon Houriez imagine et propose des solutions pédagogiques et innovantes pour tous à partir des besoins des personnes en situation de handicap.
Si des solutions aux handicaps moteurs se développent, il y a encore aujourd’hui trop peu d’accès à la culture et à l’éducation “pour tous”. Avec un processus en 3 étapes (travail en réseau - prototypage - valorisation économique), Signes de sens a développé une méthodologie d’innovation permettant une collaboration entre acteurs du médico-social ou de l’éducation, chercheurs et bénéficiaires, afin d’inventer de nouvelles solutions d’accès à l’information ou aux apprentissages pour les publics en situation de handicap. Il s’appuie sur une logique de conception universelle : toute innovation est née d’un travail avec un public spécifique et s’applique finalement au grand public.
Depuis 15 ans, Signes de sens développe des outils reconnus, comme Elix, dictionnaire web collaboratif en langue des signes ou Ben le Koala, qui aide les enfants autistes à acquérir les gestes du quotidien. En plus d’équiper les personnes handicapées dans leur quotidien, Signes de sens accompagne les professionnels du secteur médicosocial et de l’éducation, les collectivités et les entreprises dans leur démarche d’accessibilité et de conception universelle. L’association essaime sur le territoire français en déployant des laboratoires d’innovation pédagogique dans chaque région.
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Étudiant à l’ENS de Lyon, Simon interrompt ses études après avoir rencontré une personne sourde lors de l’organisation d’un festival. Il constate un “fossé” dans l’offre culturelle et éducative, ce qui le motive à changer les choses. Il apprend la langue des signes et travaille un an dans un institut spécialisé pour enfants sourds. Il crée alors une association qui deviendra Signes de sens en 2007. Passionné de sciences cognitives, il considère les personnes handicapées non comme des dépendants mais comme des éclaireurs pour l’innovation pédagogique.
To transform these bridges into a fully integrated, equal citizenry, Simon is empowering the deaf community to fully embrace their identity, grow the scope of their knowledge, and attain full access to society’s resources. Understanding the importance of language for one’s identity and worldview, but also the challenges of capturing and sharing sign language over time and space, Simon is creating ways on- and off-line for deaf people to capture the signs they use, enrich their community’s vocabulary, understand the different meanings of words, and reinforce each other’s ability to conceptualize the complex, multi-layered world in which they live. Simon is making sign language the bedrock of deaf people’s citizenship and status as a cultural minority.
Due to Simon’s efforts, the deaf community is progressively building legitimacy in society. As its members acquire more sophisticated and multi-dimensional linguistic capability, they are able to integrate into new professional spheres and express themselves in new cultural settings; offsetting the general perception and bias against their handicap. In addition, Simon is creating educational roles for the hearing impaired and visual tools so that children and adults can learn differently and conceptualize the world in a more integrated way. While Simon’s work is currently focused around the deaf community’s specificities, it will inevitably become a great platform for other groups with learning disabilities.
French Sign Language (FSL) was only authorized in education in 1991 and recognized as a language in 2005, a sign of its severe lexical weaknesses, particularly in specialized domains. For example, the French dictionary gives eight possible meanings for the word “table” (table of contents, multiplication table, and so on), while a French/FSL dictionary provides one sign: A dining room table. In addition, there is no place where FSL poetry, theatre, and the like can be shared, memorized, and enriched. The “oral” tradition is very pronounced in the deaf community, which means, to paraphrase Leopold Sédar Senghor’s famous quote, “When a deaf person dies, a library burns.” Paradoxically, sign language was invented in France, but was soon banned for more than 100 years. In 1880 an international congress on deaf children’s education was held in Milan, Italy, and among its resolutions was the declaration that the “oral method” was preferable to the “signing method.” Henceforth, sign language was no longer taught in schools for deaf children, but they were instead taught speech and lip-reading. Sign language was regarded as an inferior system of pantomime and gesture rather than a true language. Parents were advised not to allow their children to use signs or even gesture, as this would spoil their chances of developing speech and lip-reading skills.
In 1991 the National Assembly passed the Fabius Law officially authorizing the use of FSL in the education of deaf children. France is only recently defining sign language as part of a culture, and is still reluctant to teach sign language in schools; only 15 primary schools taught sign language in 2008. As a result, there is a real lack of pedagogical tools: Teachers and parents are ill-equipped to use FSL as an opportunity for new learning and cultural awareness.
Unfortunately, most hearing people have difficulty thinking of deaf people as a source of richness for society rather than as less intelligent and less capable. For example, making websites accessible to deaf people is often an expensive proposition, but could allow many people with reading disabilities and language problems to better understand the content of the site. More broadly, sign language and visual learning often proves an effective tool for autistic, dyslexic, and dysphasic people, so efforts to integrate the deaf community may also be extended to these groups.
Simon has quickly realized that to instill a deeper shift into the educational system, he must also help the deaf community to take ownership of their identity and language, and expand their vocabulary; this is key for conceptualizing the world and having access as full citizens. People who are part of deaf culture typically use sign language as their primary language and often do not see themselves as disabled, but rather as members of a cultural or linguistic minority. With the web’s potential to capture the rich, yet evolving language of sign in its various meanings, inceptions, and cultural expressions, Simon has partnered with IBM to engage the extended deaf community to create the first interactive dictionary/encyclopedia where all the entries of the French dictionary and their inceptions will be translated into sign language. There will also be spaces for collective memory. To achieve this huge task and to create the missing signs, Simon is launching an open online challenge where anyone can submit entries, while experts and visitors evaluate suggested signs. The important task of translating the subtlety of a language into signs becomes a tool to educate, expand creativity, and invent new forms of expression. Simon is also providing incentives to institutions and leading websites to use this tool as a way to make public information accessible to all.
Simon sees that visual learning and new roles for the hearing disabled have the potential to shift the way society as a whole is learning, and hence overcome discrimination against those who have to learn differently. With the famous Musée du Louvre, he has created the first portable visual guides (Portable Induction Loop system) in sign language, and to shift educational approaches more broadly, Simon is creating a space for the deaf to be educators of the general public. For example, he has developed the first program for deaf people to be guides in museums for all visitors (not only for deaf people). Such experiments question people’s way of perceiving the world, make knowledge accessible to everyone, and challenge stereotypes about the deaf—but also of all who learn differently. Simon knows what he does may be transferred to a broader range of needs—from autism to dyslexia—where signs and images are a spontaneous way to understand the world.
Simon’s father died when he was 23 years old, and he decided to interrupt his graduate studies in Physics and Chemistry—becoming aware that we all have only a short time to do what is most important to us. He participated in the creation of an artistic festival, and it was there that he met a deaf person and learned of the profound lack of cultural offerings adapted for deaf people. Instead of being distressed by this, Simon learned about the problems faced by deaf people. He learned sign language and worked for a year in a specialized institution for deaf children in Lille, in the north of France. Simon continued his research on the subject and analyzed what was already available to deaf people, both culturally and pedagogically. He later created the association Conte Sur Tes Doigts (Tell on Your Fingers), which would become Signes de Sens, to develop activities and materials that did not exist.
Simon is convinced that it is possible to innovate and invent for the most vulnerable members of society and then use these advancements to benefit society at-large. He often uses the vibrate function of cellular telephones as an example. Initially invented for deaf people, this function is now used by everyone. He has begun to see applications for his work for other groups that have relational problems due to occasional or permanent problems with oral communication, such as the elderly, aphasic or dysphasic people, or people with Alzheimer’s disease.