Aristotle, one of the greatest minds in human history, made a mistake. A mistake that only Charles-Michel de l’Épée would be able to correct 1,000 years later.
Charles-Michel de l’Eée learned to sign from a deaf man. In 1760, he founded a school to teach sign language to the deaf. His work helped deaf people defend themselves in court for the first time.
Who was Charles-Michel de l’Épée?
Charles-Michel de l’Épée was born in Versailles, France, on November 25, 1712, to a wealthy architect working for the King of France, Louis XIV. I’Epee studied Theology in his teen years. He was denied ordination into priesthood when he declined to sign the condemnation of a reform movement called Jansenism. He took time to study law and was admitted to the bar. Later on, another archbishop agreed to ordain him but still wasn’t ordained. (Source: Biography)
I’Epee was introduced to two deaf twin sisters and became their tutor. He soon realized that Aristotle’s accounts of the deaf were not true and pursued to help the twin sisters and those like them.
I’Epee founded a school for the deaf out of his pocket in 1760. At this time, the deaf and dumb were considered incapable of reason and were senseless. This was a long-lived prejudice dating back to the time of Aristotle in 355 BCE. I’Epee saw that this was not true and devoted his life to helping the deaf and mute, allowing them to be part of the community in general. (Source: New Advent)
I’Epee died on December 23, 1798, virtually bankrupt. He was buried at the church of Saint-Roch in Paris. A bronze monument was erected over his grave in 1838. (Source: Biography)
Father of the Deaf
His work in helping improve the lives of the deaf and mute community started on his chance encounter with the twin deaf sisters. During their time, the deaf and mute were subject to discrimination. They were forbidden to marry, own property, and in some cases, have access to education. Only the deaf and mute children of the wealthy were taught to read and write.
I’Epee was successful in educating the twins once he learned how to communicate with them properly. The deaf community back then used a common manual sign language, and I’Epee enriched it by creating hand signals dedicated to sounds of the alphabet. He successfully educated the twins and understood that the deaf must learn visually what the ordinary person learns audibly. (Source: Biography)
Every deaf-mute sent to us already has a language. 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?Charles-Michel de l’Épée
I’Epee’s methodology proved more successful than his predecessors Pereira, Bulwer, Dalgano, Dr. John Wallis. Upon his death, Abbe Sicard continued his work and became the proponent between the French and American sign language. Sicard’s improvement on Epee’s methodology set the groundwork for American sign language. (Source: New Advent)