Charles-Michel de l’Épée's interest in the deaf arose from an unplanned encounter with two young deaf sisters in the slums of Paris who used sign language to communicate.
Épée, who would be turning 306 today if he were still alive, founded the first public school for the deaf in 1760 and has become known as the “Father of the Deaf”.
The trailblazer revolutionised the lives of the deaf during a period when they experienced profound prejudice. He overwrote the fallacy people with impaired hearing were not able to learn by building a visual method which went on to become the blueprint for teaching without sound.
"Every deaf-mute sent to us already has a language," he 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.”
Born into a wealthy family in Versailles, he studied to be a Catholic priest but was denied ordination as a result of his refusal to denounce Jansenism - a popular French heresy of the period. He went on to study law but quickly after joining the Bar, was finally ordained – only to then be refused a licence to officiate.
It was then that he decided to invest his energies into the poor. He used his own inheritance to found the Institution Nationale des Sourds-Muets à Paris - a school for the deaf which was open to all irrespective of their capacity to pay.
Two years after he died, the National Assembly recognised him as a "Benefactor of Humanity" and declared deaf people had rights according to the declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
The school he founded started to receive government funding in 1791 and continues to be open until this day but now has the name of Institut National de Jeunes Sourds de Paris.
His public advocacy and development of a type of “Signed French” allowed deaf people to legally defend themselves in court for the first time.
Épée developed teacher-training programmes for foreigners who would transport his methods back to their own countries and who set up a number of deaf schools around the world.
Épée is frequently mistakenly described as having "taught the deaf to sign" but in reality it was the deaf who taught him to sign.
He died at the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789 and his tomb is in the Church of Saint Roch in Paris.
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