Pedro Ponce de Leon


Pedro Ponce de Leon (not Juan Ponce de Leon, who was the explorer) was a Benedictine monk who established the world's first school for the deaf at the Monastery of San Salvador near Madrid, Spain where he taught till his death. He first taught his deaf students "to write while showing them with his finger the object which was named by the written characters; then drilling them to repeat with the vocal organs the words which correspond to these characters."

Once his students had mastered the alphabet and the basics of writing, he taught them to read and from there to speak. He used a manual alphabet in his instruction (see below).

Ponce de Leon's alphabet

One of Ponce de Leon’s students said the following about his experience as a deaf student of Ponce de Leon:

While I was a boy and ignorant…I began to work by copying what my teacher had written: and I wrote all the words of the Castilian tongue in a book prepared to that purpose. Hereupon I began, adjurante Deo, to spell, and to utter some syllables and words with all my might, so that the saliva flowed from my mouth abundantly. Then I began to read history, and in ten years read the history of the whole world. Afterwards I learned Latin. All this was through the great grace of God without which no mute can exist (Moores 34-35).

Another of Pedro’s students was Gaspard Burgos, who was denied membership in the Benedictine order because of his language problem that prevented him from being able to take part in Catholic confessional. Burgos later wrote a number of books.

The success of his students is commented upon in the writings of Pedro himself:

I have had pupils who were deaf and dumb from birth, children of great nobles and of men of distinction, whom I have taught to speak, to read, to write and to keep accounts, to repeat prayers, to serve the mass, to know the doctrines of the Christian religion and to confess themselves viva voce. To some I have taught the Latin, to others the Latin and Greek, and to understand Italian. There was one of them who received the orders of priesthood and possessed a benefice, and performed the duties of his office in reciting t’lie breviary. This person and some others acquired natural philosophy and astrology. Another who was heir to a majorate and marquisate, and was to follow the career of arms, in addition to his other studies as already expressed, was also instructed in all martial exercises, and was a very skilful equestrian. Moreover these deaf mutes distinguished themselves by their acquaintance with the history of Spain and of foreign nations. They were even skilled in political science and in other branches of knowledge, of which Aristotle believed this class of persons incapable (translated in Peet, 1851, p. 148)

Writings about Ponce de Leon

Chaves, T., & Soler, J. (1974). Pedro Ponce de Leon, first teacher of the deaf. Sign Language Studies, 5, 48-59.

Deland, Fred (1920). Ponce de Leon and Bonet. Volta Review, 12, 7, 391-421.

Peet, Harvey P. (1851). Memoir on the origin and early history of the art of instructing the deaf and dumb. American Annals of the Deaf and Dumb, 3, 3, 17-192.