Google is celebrating the 306th birth anniversary of Abbé Charles-Michel de l’Épée, a philanthropic educator who founded the first public school for the hearing-impaired in France. He devoted his life to developing the world’s first sign alphabet for the deaf and is known as the ‘Father of the Deaf’.
He developed a visual method that became the blueprint for the teaching of the deaf. It changed countless lives at a time when many deaf people were discriminated against. “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.”
De l’Epee was born in Versailles on November 24, 1712. He was the son of an architect who studied theology and law. Later he started focusing on charity work in Paris, and during this time, he met two young deaf sisters who lived in the slums of Paris and communicated by using sign language.
In 1760, he founded the Institution Nationale des Sourds-Muets à Paris, a school for the deaf that was open to all regardless of their ability to pay. The school was conducted entirely at his own expense. “It is not to the rich,” he said. “That I have devoted myself; it is to the poor only. Had it not been for these, I should have never attempted the education of deaf and dumb.”
In 1791, the Institution began to receive government funding. The French National Assembly recognized him as a ‘Benefactor of Humanity’, and asserted the rights of deaf people under France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Épée passed away at the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789. He died on December 23, 1789, at the age of 77.