Charles Michèle de l’Epée
The Abbé Charles-Michel de l’Épée (French: [ʃaʁlmiʃɛl dəlepe]; 24 November 1712, Versailles – 23 December 1789, Paris) was a philanthropic educator of 18th-century France who has become known as the “Father of the Deaf”.
Charles-Michel de l’Épée was born to a wealthy family in Versailles, the seat of political power in what was then the most powerful kingdom of Europe. He studied to be a Catholic priest.
Épée then 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 school. 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.
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 programmes 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 brought 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 the UK 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.
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