By: Debbie Cirre (05/25/17)
At a time in history when deaf people had no rights and were even considered unteachable, one man emerged who opened the doors and changed the course of deaf education. Abbe Charles Michel de l’Epee, known as the “Father of the Deaf”, is my favorite person from deaf history for this reason. He unlocked communication and developed successful educational methods for deaf people in France. His work inspired other countries to follow his methods as well, bringing new opportunities to deaf people around the world.
Charles Michel de l’Epee was born in 1712 to the architect of King Louis XIV. He became a priest and, when hopes for a higher position were dashed, chose to focus on helping the poor. A story is told that Abbe de l’Epee was asked to teach religion to two girls who were deaf. Because of this encounter, he was inspired to teach deaf children. Eventually he established the first school for the deaf in France, The Royal Institution of Deaf Mutes, in 1760. It was a free school, and open to the public. Originally funded by de l’Epee himself, the school began receiving government funding in 1791.
More than two hundred years before ASL was declared an actual language with its own syntax and grammar, Abbe de l’Epee believed that sign language was the natural language of deaf people. He invented a one-handed manual alphabet and used signs he learned from the deaf children themselves to develop a sign language which he used to teach his students French. This signed language, now known as “Old Signed French”, was used only in the classroom, as students preferred their own community sign language for communication.
De l’Epee published about his work in 1760, and other countries were intrigued by his success. They sent people to learn his methods of deaf education, hoping to bring the information home and help the deaf people in their own countries. Nine foreign students established schools for the deaf around the world using l’Epee’s methods. Ten French students began eight schools within France. Education for the deaf spread and l’Epee’s methods even found their way to the New World.
Abbe de l’Epee was a staunch advocate for deaf people. Thanks to his work, deaf people gained access to religious services and could legally defend themselves in court. Two years after his death in 1789, the National Assembly honored him with the title “Benefactor of Humanity.” The Assembly also said that deaf people had rights under the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
Abbe de l’Epee was a pioneer for deaf rights and education at a time when deaf people had neither. His openness to learning from the deaf opened the doors to their education and paved the way to their being recognized as people with rights and opportunities. He has truly earned the title “Father of the Deaf” and is a great example to all who seek to interact with the deaf community.