As a teen, Charles-Michel de l'Epee studied theology, but during this era French Catholics were battling a reform movement called Jansenism, and all priests were expected to sign a condemnation of it before their ordination. Jansenism, which gained ground in the 1640s, was based on teachings of St. Augustine and discouraged taking the sacrament of Holy Communion so frequently. Epee refused to sign the formulaire denouncing it, and so the Archbishop of Paris in turn refused to ordain him. Epee decided to study law instead.
Abbe Charles Michel de L’Epee was a French pioneer teacher for deaf mutes. He was also a philanthropic priest and inventor of the sign alphabet. In the 18th century, L’Epee went to visit a lady with two children. L’Epee thought the children were rude because they would not speak to him. Their mother later told him that they were deaf, so this persuaded L’Epee to do research on a sign language for deaf mutes. L’Epee’s research consisted of observing a system of signs that were already being used in Paris.
His mission was to help the two deaf children and find other deaf people that needed help. L’Epee used these signs and incorporated his own creative twist to the signs to create a more formal sign language. L’Epee was so successful in forming this new sign language that it eventually led to him teaching a class of forty students the new language. In 1754 L’Epee opened the first public school for the deaf. He funded and setup the school for the deaf in France. His school was called the “Institution Nationale des sourds-muets de Paris,” this translates into the National Deaf-Dumb Institute of Paris.
His method is based on the principle that "the education of deaf mutes must teach them through the eye what other people acquire through the ear". Several other methods had been tried, previous to this time, to enable the deaf and dumb to communicate with one another and with the rest of mankind, but there can be no doubt that he attained far greater success than Pereira, Bulwer, Dalgano, Dr. John Wallis, or any of his predecessors, and that the whole system now followed in the instruction of deaf mutes virtually owes its origin to his ingenuity and devotion.
His own system has, in its turn, been replaced by a newer method, which teaches the pupils to recognize words and, in time, to utter them, by closely watching, and afterwards imitating, the motions of the lips and tongue in speech, the different portions of the vocal organs being shown by means of diagrams. Excellent results have thus been attained, deaf and dumb persons acquiring the ability to converse fluently. This method has of late increased in favour. But it remains true that the Abbé de l'Epée by his sign system laid the foundations of all systematic instruction of the deaf and dumb, a system which was further developed by his pupil and successor, the Abbé Sicard.
In English, Épée's system has been known as "Methodical Signs" and "Old Signed French" but is perhaps better translated by the phrase systematised signs. While Épée's system laid the philosophical groundwork for the later developments of Manually Coded Languages such as Signed English, it differed somewhat in execution. What distinguished Épée from educators of the deaf before him, and ensured his place in history, is that he allowed his methods and classrooms to be available to the public and other educators.
Épée died at the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789, and his tomb is in the Church of Saint Roch in Paris.
Quotations: "Religion and humanity inspire me with such a great interest in a truly destitute class of persons who, though similar to ourselves, are reduced, as it were, to the condition of animals so long as no attempts are made to rescue them from the darkness surrounding them, that I consider it an absolute obligation to make every effort to bring about their release from these shadows."
Charles-Michel de l'Épée was a peacemaker by nature. Because he intuitively knew what people want, or feel, he was extremely diplomatic and tactful. Patient and cooperative that he was, Charles-Michel works well with groups and somehow finds a way of creating harmony among diverse opinions. When employing his considerable inner strength, l'Épée uncovered his enormous power and abilities to direct difficult situations toward his own goals. It was the awareness of his inner strength that gave Charles-Michel de l'Épée the courage to use his own personal power when it was needed. In truth, Charles-Michel de l'Épée was often the power behind the throne. He was a perfectionist when it comes to his home and work environment. He had excellent taste which was obvious in his private surroundings. Charles-Michel was a fine companion and possesses a good sense of humor. Friends seemed l'Épée out for his calming and peaceful company. Charles-Michel was a safe haven to other sensitive people, who recognize his compassion and understanding. When Charles-Michel had found his niche in life, he had all the talents and intelligence for great success.