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Charles Michel De l’Epée


By: Chelsea Fisher
08/20/2012

 

Charles Michel De l’Epée

 

On the 24th of November a true “Gem of History” was born. Charles Michel de l’Epée started out as just a boy raised by a strict father under the King of France. Studying the Gospel and the Law were a few things where de l’Epée showed talent and skill of the trade, but did not find success or happiness. But as the common phrase goes, when one door opens another closes, and this is where de l’Epée’s true impact on history is found.


Later to be known as a pioneer in Deaf education, teaching was not something Charles had studied or thought to pursue. However, this changed quite quickly when he met two sisters so engrossed, or so they appeared, in their needlework that they could not even take the time to acknowledge him. “In the midst of the Abbe’s wonder at this apparent rudeness, their mother entered the room and the mystery was at once explained. With tears she informed him that her daughters were Deaf and dumb; that they had received, by means of pictures, a little instruction from a benevolent priest in the neighborhood, but that this good friend was now dead and her poor children were left without anyone to aid their intellectual progress.” (The Deaf American, 1966) de l’Epée was horrified at the thought of these two girls dying in ignorance of religion, so naturally he stepped up to help and educate the girls. But, of course, there were challenges.


How was he to teach these girls? The first, and most logical step he decided, was to understand them. “…he immediately applied himself to the task of becoming familiar with the signs already in use among them, and of correcting, enlarging and methodizing this language, ‘till it should become as perfect an organ of communication as the nature of the case would allow,” (The Deaf American, 1966). From that point, his success only grew. He opened the school of de l’Epée, designed to educate not the rich, but the dumb and the Deaf, the poor. And his work was not to go unnoticed. “The Emperor Joseph II [of Austria] himself visited his school. The Duke of Penthièvre, as well as Louis XVI, helped him with large contributions,” (Catholic Encyclopedia, 1909). But Charles did not take any gifts personally. He pled old age, and instead gave these generous donations to the benefit of the school, an admirable action.

 

After taking wood for his own personal fire one night, a common indulgence he deprived himself of, he would often repeat, “My poor children, I have wronged you of a hundred crowns,” (The Deaf American, 1966). This statement showed the true love and talent that he put into his school. And naturally, after giving so much, he would be considered a pioneer of Deaf education and even possibly the “Father of the Deaf.” But others wondered, should it be taken that far? There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that de l’Epée had accomplished great things, but similar to Christopher Columbus, there are other stories that tie into this one.


De l’Epee steadfastly supported a method “based on the principle that ‘the education of Deaf mutes must teach them through the eye what other people acquire through the ear’” (Catholic Encyclopedia, 1909). He was not the first person to do so. Led by many, including Pereira, Bulwer and even Dalgano, it was still apparent that de l’Epée had the most success. But, not everyone agreed with this statement. One who greatly disagreed with that, as he so stated in his work, was Pierre Desloges. “Desloges’s text proves that the origin of French (and American) Sign Language lies not in de l’Epée’s school or even in his methodical signs but in the fact that as early as the end of the eighteenth century a Deaf community that communicated in sign language existed in Paris outside the school environment. de l’Epée (1776, 15, pt. 5) estimated that this Parisian Deaf community consisted of about two hundred members,” (The Study of Natural Sign Language in Eighteenth-Century France, 2002).


However in “April of 1786 Sophie La Roche visited de l’Epée and his pupils on the occasion of one of those famous public exercises. As an eyewitness, she was deeply impressed by the achievements of the Deaf pupils, whose methodical signing distinguished between French homonyms such as voler (“fly,” or “steal”),” (The Study of Natural Sign Language in Eighteenth-Century France, 2002).


But none of this speculation ever reached de l’Epée. A man who never cared for such news or gossip, his lifetime was considered more private. The Abbe died at the age of 77 in a particularly cold winter of 1789. The discussion following de l’Epée’s death may be the most interesting part of this history. “His funeral was attended by a deputation from the National Assembly, the Mayor of Paris, and all the representatives of the Commune. Two years after his death, the school which he had established and which was so dear to his heart, was adopted by the national government. It continues to this day (1848), known and honored throughout the civilized world as the Royal Institution for the Deaf and Dumb at Paris,” (The Deaf American, 1966).
 


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