I think most people in Exmouth know of the Deaf Academy’s arrival in the town and the positive contribution they are making to the community. Following the museum attending an event at the academy I thought readers might like to know a bit more of its history and how it came to Exmouth.

The first school for the deaf was set up by Thomas Braidwood in Edinburgh in 1760 and the first one in Devon was founded in 1826. US President Abraham Lincoln approved the first deaf university in the world in 1866 called the Galludet University. Incredible as it may seem now, the International Congress on Education of the Deaf in 1880, when meeting in Milan, banned all sign language, having decided that the spoken word was better!

1898 saw the invention of the hearing aid but evidently it was so large it had to sit on a table! Something much more practical came along in 1957 when the cochlear implant was invented. This was truly a major advance as it sent sound directly inside the ear for the first time.

The academy in Devon can trace its origins way back to 1826 to a lady called Charlotte Hippisley Tuckfield. She was a teacher at her local village school near Crediton and had visited deaf schools in France and Germany and on returning to Devon invited local wealthy men to a meeting in Exeter and they agreed to open what was called The Royal West of England Institution for the Deaf and Dumb. It initially had six pupils, all of whom were resident. With the coming of the railway the school soon grew. In 1939 the school changed its name to The Royal West of England Residential School for the Deaf and it was situated on Topsham Road in Exeter.

In the 1970s sign language was becoming more accepted and recognised as a real language. In 1985 the International Congress on the Education of the Deaf met in Manchester to finally have the language formally recognised. Their meeting in Canada in 2010 saw them finally apologise for having banned sign language in the first place. 1999 saw a huge march in London in support of this and in 2003 the government formally recognised the language.

By the 1980s there were 75 deaf schools throughout the UK, but by 2020 this had reduced to twenty two as a result of attempting to integrate deaf children into mainstream schooling, where teachers used a mix of sign and spoken language.

After Rolle College closed and the buildings were vacant the school started to think about moving to Exmouth. After much building work on the site, in 2020 the school completed its move to the town and renamed itself the Deaf Academy. It occupies a new purpose-built building for students as you can see in the photo. Inside, much thought has gone into the building; from boards hanging from ceilings to aid acoustics, to wide corridors so students can walk alongside each other and sign, and the horseshoe-shaped classes that assist with communication that makes all the difference. This gives all students a lovely environment in which to develop their skills and enjoy life.

The academy is proving a valuable addition to the town and Exmouth is indeed lucky to have them here. If they have an open day in the future, I do urge you to go along and see for yourself and maybe learn a little sign language! The museum is very proud to be forging  links with the academy which we hope will be of further benefits to the students.

Why not become a volunteer steward at the museum? Even if you can only spare an hour or two we would love to hear from you. To find out more about Exmouth Museum at the museum’s website www.exmouthmuseum.co.uk or you can email me at mike.menhenitt@btinternet.com.