Charles-Michel de l'Epee (1712-1789) founded the first public school for the hearing-impaired in France. He devoted his life to developing the world'sfirst sign alphabet for the deaf. Epee is also credited with creating a systematic method of teaching the hearing-impaired. His manual alphabet, which he called French Sign Language, was adapted into American Sign Language a few decades after his death.
Epee was born in the city of Versailles, France, on November 25, 1712. His father was an architect in the employ of France's king, Louis XIV, who built a palatial new capital in the city. As a teen, Epee studied theology, but during this era French Catholics were battling a reform movement called Jansenism, and all priests were expected to sign a condemnation of it before their ordination. Jansenism, which gained ground in the 1640s, was based on teachings of St. Augustine and discouraged taking the sacrament of Holy Communion so frequently. Epee refused to sign the formulaire denouncing it, and so the Archbishop of Paris in turn refused to ordain him. Epee decided to study law instead, and was admitted to the Bar. Another bishop later agreed to ordain him, but when this patron died, Epee returned to Paris and lived a life of ease there.
Epee befriended a cleric, Father Vanin, and through him met two twin girls, both of whom had been deaf since birth. Vanin had been tutoring them, and when the fellow cleric died unexpectedly, Epee agree to take over the job. At the time, there existed few educational opportunities for the hearing impaired. Primitive superstitions were still firmly entrenched in parts of Western Europe. The Greek philosopher Aristotle had written in 355 BCE that the deaf were senseless and incapable of reason, a prejudice that endured for more than a millennium. Only in 1500 did a physician, Girolama Cardano, conduct a study that proved the deaf were capable of reason. Still, throughout much of Europe the deaf were subject to various edicts that forbid them to marry, own property, or in some cases receive the most nominal of educations. Only deaf children from wealthy families were able to read and write. Some even learned to speak through dedicated teachers whose seemingly miraculous methods became closely guarded secrets. There was a small body of work on the subject: John Bulwer published Philocophus; or, The Deafe and Dumbe Man's Friend in London in 1648, which advocated education for the deaf by the method of reading lips. His work was reminiscent of studies from Juan Pablo Bonet in Spain, which espoused a method of teaching the deaf to speak by phonetic sounds.
In Paris, the community of hearing-impaired used a common manual language, and Epee began to teach the twins using a form of hand signals that substituted the sounds of alphabet. He quickly achieved measurable success. Epee's true breakthrough in deaf education was his assertion that deaf people must learn visually what others acquire by hearing, and his method of teaching laid the foundations for all systematic instruction of the deaf. "Every deaf-mute sent to us already has a language," he wrote. "He is thoroughly in the habit of using it, and understands others who do. With it he expresses his needs, desires, doubts, pains, and so on, and makes no mistakes when others express themselves likewise. We want to instruct him and therefore to teach him French. What is the shortest and easiest method? Isn't it to express ourselves in his language? By adopting his language and making it conform to clear rules, will we not be able to conduct his instruction as we wish?"
Epee soon earned the enmity of another teacher of the deaf in Paris, a Portuguese named Jacob Pereire, who had developed a method for teaching his own deaf son. In 1746 a wealthy French family, the d'Etavignys, hired Pereire to instruct their son. He taught the boy to speak through a method of fingerspelling, called dactylology. The remarkable achievement was even presented to the king of France. Pereire was well compensated by this family and another who hired him, and dismissed Epee's methods when they became known. He took his method with him to the grave when he died in 1780.
Founded School with Inheritance
Epee took a more democratic view of education for the hearing-impaired. He did not hope to enrich himself by reserving his methods for the deaf and mute of Europe's upper classes, but instead impoverished himself to teach children from all walks of life. He began to take on more pupils, publicizing his success through demonstrations in his home. Before an assembled audience, Epee would dictate a sentence to his students in their sign language, which they then transcribed into written French. In 1755 he founded his school for the deaf in Paris, and funded it with his modest inheritance. Students also learned to speak, drawing upon methods that had already been proven a success.
One particular challenge that Epee and his pupils faced was the complexity of the French language itself. Word endings denoted meaning in French, as did the word order of a sentence. Epee created a series of hand signs for word endings in French, and a vocabulary that drew upon the Latin roots of words. The verb "satisfaire," for example, was signed through two Latin terms, "satis" and "facere," which meant "to do enough." This system evolved into what became known as French Sign Language. Soon, word of Epee's methods had spread throughout France. The Bishop of Bordeaux, hearing about the remarkable students in Paris, sent a Bordeaux boy there who would later succeed Epee after his death. This teacher, the Abbe Roch-Ambroise Sicard, founded the second school for the deaf in Bordeaux around 1786. Other students also came to Paris and took Epee's methods with them to found schools across Europe.
"Reduced to the Condition of Animals"
Epee was one of the first to assert that the deaf were fully functioning citizens of society, and should be accorded every right granted to the non-hearing impaired. For this he is recognized as single-handedly bringing the deaf community into their own social class. As he wrote in his 1784 book, La veritable maniere d'instruire les sourds et muets, confirmee par une longue experience (The True Method of Educating the Deaf, Confirmed by Much Experience), "Religion and humanity inspire me with such a great interest in a truly destitute class of persons who, though similar to ourselves, are reduced, as it were, to the condition of animals so long as no attempts are made to rescue them from the darkness surrounding them, that I consider it an absolute obligation to make every effort to bring about their release from these shadows."
Despite his achievements, some critics asserted that Epee's pupils learned by rote, and did not possess a true understanding of language or an ability to formulate sentences on their own. He strove to answer to "those theologians, rationalistic philosophers, and academicians of various nationalities," Epee wrote, "who held that metaphysical ideas were inexpressible by deaf signs and hence necessarily beyond the understanding of the deaf." With characteristic tenacity, Epee also proved his detractors wrong. One deaf student, Clement de la Pujade, was renowned for his delivery of a five-page discourse in Latin and participation in a discussion on the history of philosophical thought.
Epee achieved great fame during his lifetime. The Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II visited his school, and Louis XVI supported the institute financially. However, Epee died a virtual pauper in Paris on December 23, 1789. Despite his renown, he had bankrupted himself for his cause. Students reported that he went without heat in his own quarters so that they might have a fire in theirs. Shortly before his death, a delegation of students and representatives of France's newly created National Assembly visited him. The members of the legislative body, created in the wake of the French Revolution that same year, pledged to carry on his work, and Epee's school was formally taken over by the French government in 1791 as the Institution Nationale des Sourds-Muets a Paris. The Assembly also decreed that Epee's name should be inscribed on its list of the "benefactors of mankind." He was buried at church of Saint-Roch in Paris, and a bronze monument was erected over his grave in 1838.
Epee wrote Institution des sourds-muets par la voie des signes methodiques ("Educating Deaf-Mutes Using Methodical Signs"), published in 1776, and revised much of it for the aforementioned 1784 work, La veritable maniere d'instruire les sourds et muets. He also began a Dictionnaire general des signes which was finished by the Abbe Sicard. Sicard carried on Epee's work, and became the link between French Sign Language and American Sign Language. In London in 1815, Sicard met an American minister, Thomas Gallaudet, who was interested in teaching the deaf, and the two returned to Paris. One of Gallaudet's teachers there, Laurent Clerc, traveled back to Connecticut with him and, in 1817, the pair co-founded the first school for the deaf in the United States. Gallaudet and Clerc combined French Sign Language with other methods to create American Sign Language, which is used by over 500,000 hearing-impaired people in North America.
The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XIV, Robert Appleton Company, 1912.
The Deaf Experience, edited by Harlan Lane, Harvard University Press, 1984.