Charles Michel de l’Epee, who is often called the first true teacher of the Deaf, created the first public school for the deaf in Paris, called the “Institution Nationale des sourds-muets de Paris,” which means “the National Deaf-Mute Institute of Paris”.
De l’Epee was born in Versailles on November 25, 1712. Epee studied theology as a young man, and later became a lawyer. He eventually did become a priest in Paris, where he encountered a fellow cleric, Father Vanin, who had been tutoring two deaf girls. When Vanin died, Epee took over the sisters’ education.
In order to teach the girls, Epee began to study the existing forms of sign language used in Paris, hoping to use them to form a basis of communication with his pupils. From his research, he was able to create a system of signs to be used in teaching the Deaf. He formulated a one-handed signed alphabet and also many words in the already-used signing.
Epee, unlike many of his contemporaries, believed that education for the Deaf should be accomplished by communicating with the Deaf in their signed language, rather than using the traditional oral methods.
“Every deaf-mute sent to us already has a language,” Epee once 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?”
This was a challenge to the traditional belief that signing was not a true language and that its only proper use in Deaf education was paving the way to learning phonetic speech. Some of Epee’s predecessors had expressed similar opinions, but Epee was the first whose ideas began to foster a change in the way Deaf education was viewed and an acceptance of the idea of sign language as a valid language in itself.
Another way Epee changed the landscape of Deaf education was his belief that all Deaf children ought to be instructed in their language, regardless of their families’ economic standing. Before Epee’s time, education for the Deaf, and often education in general, had been a privilege available only to the upper class. However, Epee’s school accepted children from all backgrounds.
Epee’s methods continued to be taught at his school after his death in 1789. His successor, Abbe Sicard, taught Epee’s methods to Thomas Gallaudet when he toured Europe seeking a way to teach his charge Alice Cogswell. With Gallaudet and his companion Laurent Clerc, a teaching assistant from Epee’s school, the idea of sign language spread to America. The French Sign Language that had developed as a result of Epee’s work would adopted and adapted into what we know today as ASL.