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Abbé Charles-Michel de l'Épée:
Abbe Charles Michel de L’Epee
Deafness is defined as an inability to hear (“Deafness”, 2003). It’s estimated that 28 million United States residents have a hearing loss; of the 28 million people more than two million are profoundly deaf (“Deafness”, 2003). Up until the Middle Ages people did not believe the Deaf Community was capable of learning a language, they considered deaf people languageless. Around the 18th century European philosophers and some teachers were researching Deaf people’s capacity for language (Stokoe, 2002). One very important influential teacher that had a major role in teaching the deaf community sign language was a Frenchman named, Abbé Charles-Michel de l'Épée.
Abbé Charles-Michel de l'Épée was a French pioneer teacher for "deaf mutes."* He was also a philanthropic priest and inventor of the sign alphabet (Knight, 2003). L’Epee studied theology and law but only ended up returning to Paris as a priest. In the 18th century, L’Epee went to visit a lady with two children. L’Epee thought the children were rude because they would not speak to him (About.com). Their mother later told him that they were deaf, so this persuaded L’Epee to do research on a sign language for "deaf mutes."* L’Epee’s research consisted of observing a system of signs that were already being used in Paris. His mission was to help the two deaf children and find other deaf people that needed help. L’Epee used these signs and incorporated his own creative twist to the signs to create a more formal sign language. L’Epee was so successful in forming this new sign language that it eventually led to him teaching a class of forty students the new language. In 1754 L’Epee opened the first public school for the Deaf. He funded and setup the school for the Deaf in France. His school was called the “Institution Nationale des sourds-muets de Paris,” this translates into the National Deaf-Dumb Institute of Paris (About.com). His school was later taken over by Abbe Sicard, a pupil of L’Epee, after L'Epee's death in 1789.
L’Epee became very well known all over Europe. The Emperor Joseph II, the Duke of Penthievre, and Louis XVI visited the school and made large contributions. L’Epee’s method of teaching was based on the principle “the education of deaf mutes must teach them through the eye what other people acquire through the ear”* (Knight, 2003).
Some other major accomplishments that L’Epee consisted of writing numerous books and having two statues placed in his honor. In 1776, he published a book called “Institution des sourds-muets par la voie des signes methodiques” which was a treatise on his educational methods. In 1794, his next book “La veritable maniere d’ instruire les sourds et muets, confirmee par une longue experience” was an expansion of his first published book (Knight, 2003). L’Epee began writing a “Dictionnaire general des signes” that consisted of manual signs and was later completed by Abbe Sicard, his pupil and successor (Knight, 2003). Two years after L’Epee’s death the National Assembly enrolled his name among the benefactors of mankind and undertook the support of the school he had founded. In 1838, a bronze monument was put in L’Epee honor over his grave in Paris, and in 1930, a bronze statue of L’Epee, made by Eugene A. Hannon, was put in the front of St. Mary’s School for the Deaf in Buffalo, New York.
Abbe was a very influential teacher in the Deaf Community. His teachings paved the way for a more standardized means of communication for the Deaf. If L’Epee had not committed his life in wanting to help the Deaf Community learn a means of communication, sign language would probably not be as we know it today. His creativeness and devotion had a major influence on the eventual development of American Sign Language.
About.com (2003). "Deaf Education Pioneer-Abbe Charles Michel De L’Epee." Retrieved April 25, 2003, from http://deafness.about.com/library/weekly/aa070902.htm
“Deafness,” Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2003, http://encarta.msn.com 1997-2003 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.
Stokoe, William. (2002). Illinois Deaf and Hard of Hearing Commission. Retrieved April 25, from http://www.edhhc.state.il.us/education/Excerpt.htm
Knight, Kevin. The Catholic Encyclopedia (Vol. 5). New York: The Catholic Encyclopedia. Retrieved April 25, from http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05484b.htm
Author of this artilce: Kayla Hollier
Date of submission: April 29, 2003
Notes: Terminology changes over time. The term "deaf mute" is not current. Instead just use the term "deaf" when referring to the inability to hear or use "Deaf" (with a capital "D") when referring to members of the Deaf community who are "culturally Deaf."
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