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Abbé Charles-Michel de l'Épée, (born November 25, 1712, Versailles; died December 23, 1789, Parismarker) was a philanthropic educator of 18th century Francemarker who has become known as the "Father of the Deaf."


Was born to a wealthy family in Versailles, the seat of political power in what was then the most powerful kingdom of Europe. He trained as a Catholic priest but was denied ordination, as a result of his refusal to denounce Jansenism, a popular French heresy of the time. He then studied law, but soon after joining the Bar was finally ordained as an Abbé - only to be denied a license to officiate.

Épée turned his attention toward charitable services for the poor, and on one foray into the slums of Paris he had a chance encounter with two young deaf sisters who communicated using a sign language. Épée decided to dedicate himself to the education and salvation of the deaf, and in 1760 he founded a shelter which he ran with his own private income. In line with emerging philosophical thought of the time, Épée came to believe that deaf people were capable of language, and concluded that they should be able to receive the sacraments and thus avoid going to hell. He began to develop a system of instruction of the French language and religion. In the early 1760s, his shelter became the world's first free school for the deaf, open to the public.

Though Épée's original interest was in religious education, his public advocacy and development of a kind of "Signed French" enabled deaf people to legally defend themselves in court for the first time.

Abbé de l'Épée died at the beginning of the French Revolution in (1789), and his tomb is in the Saint Roch church in Paris. Two years after his death, the National Assembly recognised him as a "Benefactor of Humanity" and declared that deaf people had rights according to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. In 1791, the " Institution Nationale des Sourds-Muets à Paris", which Épée had founded, began to receive government funding. It was later renamed the "Institut St. Jacques" and then renamed again to its present name: " Institut National de Jeunes Sourds de Paris". His methods of education have spread around the world, and the Abbé de l'Épée is seen today as one of the founding fathers of deaf education.

After his death, he was succeeded by the Abbe Sicard who became the new head of the school.

The Instructional Method of Signs ("signes méthodiques")

His educational method emphasised using gestures or hand-signs, based on the principle that "the education of deaf mutes must teach them through the eye what other people acquire through the ear". He recognised that there was already a signing deaf community in Paris, but saw their language (now known as Old French Sign Language) as primitive. Although he advised his (hearing) teachers to learn the signs ("lexicon") for use in instructing their deaf students, he didn't use their language in the classroom. Instead he developed an idiosyncratic gestural system using some of this lexicon, combined with other invented signs to represent all the verb endings, articles, prepositions, and auxiliary verbs of the French language.

In English, Épée's system has been known as "Methodical Signs" and "Old Signed French" but is perhaps better translated by the phrase "systematised signs". While Épée's system laid the philosophical groundwork for the later developments of Manually Coded Languages such as Signed English, it differed somewhat in execution. For example, the word croire ("believe") was signed using five separate signs — four with the meanings "know", "feel", "say", "not see" and one that marked the word as a verb (Lane, 1980:122). The word indéchiffrable ("unintelligible") was also produced with a chain of 5 signs: interior-understand-possible-adjective-not. However, like Manually Coded Languages, Épée's system was cumbersome and unnatural to deaf signers. A Deaf pupil of the school (and later teacher) Laurent Clerc wrote that the deaf never used the signes méthodiques for communication outside the classroom, preferring their own community language (French Sign Language).

Although Épée reportedly had great success with this educational method, his successes were questioned by critics who thought his students were aping his gestures rather than understanding the meaning.

Épée, to a lesser degree, also used speech and lip-reading with his pupils.

Educational legacy

What distinguished Épée from educators of the deaf before him, and ensured his place in history, is that he allowed his methods and classrooms to be available to the public and other educators. As a result of his openness as much as his successes, his methods would become so influential that their mark is still apparent in deaf education today. Épée also established teacher-training programs for foreigners who would take his methods back to their countries, and who established numerous deaf schools around the world. Laurent Clerc, a deaf pupil of the Paris school, went on to co-found the first school for the deaf in North America and took with him the sign language that formed the basis of modern American Sign Language, including the signs of the ASL alphabet.

Some deaf schools in Germany and England that were contemporaries of the Abbé de l'Épée's Paris School used an 'oralist' approach emphasising speech and lip-reading in contrast to his belief in 'manualism'. Their methods were closely-guarded secrets and they saw Épée as a rival. The oralism vs. manualism debate still rages to this day. Oralism is sometimes called the 'German method' and manualism the 'French method' in reference to those times.

The Paris school still exists, though it now uses French Sign Language in class rather than Épée's methodical signs. Located in rue Saint-Jacques in Paris, it is one of four national deaf schools - the others being in Metzmarker, Chambérymarker, and Bordeauxmarker.

Myths about Épée

Even today Épée is commonly described as the inventor of Sign Language, or as having 'taught the deaf to sign'. In fact he was taught to sign by the deaf.

He is also wrongly cited as the inventor of the one-handed manual alphabet. Épée had actually been quite disdainful of the advocates of fingerspelling, and had himself used a different (two-handed) alphabet in instances where he felt it necessary to use one.

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