Abbé de L’Epée (1712‐1789)
Abbé Charles-Michel de l’Épée (November 24, 1712, Versailles - December 23, 1789, Paris) was a philanthropic educator of 18th-century Francewho 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 trained as a Catholic priest but was denied ordination as a result of his refusal to denounce Jansenism, a popular French heresy of the time. He then studied law but, soon after joining the Bar, was finally ordained as an Abbé—only to be denied a license to officiate.
Épée 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.
Abbé de l’Épée died at the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789, and his tomb is in the Saint Roch church in Paris. Two years after his death, the National Assembly recognised him as a “Benefactor of Humanity” and declared that deaf people had rights according to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. In 1791, the Institution Nationale des Sourds-Muets à Paris, which Épée had founded, began to receive government funding. It was later renamed the Institut St. Jacques and then renamed again to its present name: Institut National de Jeunes Sourds de Paris. His methods of education have spread around the world, and the Abbé de l’Épée is seen today as one of the founding fathers of deaf education.
After his death, he was succeeded by the Abbé Sicard, who became the new head of the school.