The right of the deaf to their language
Department of Education officials recently announced in a forum that hearing-impaired children will continue to be taught using Signing Exact English (SEE) instead of Filipino Sign Language (FSL). They also said that the existing DepEd policy calls for “using the oral method from preparatory to Grade 2 and total communication from Grades 3 to 6 using English and Filipino Language,” and that “SEE shall be used in all subjects taught in English.”
SEE and other manually coded systems of English are visual representations of spoken English. Natural visual languages like FSL have their own unique syntax and use non-manual signals (of the face and body) in place of many grammatical features of spoken and written languages.
The DepEd announcement triggered outrage from the deaf community and its stakeholders and resulted in position papers from the Philippine Federation of the Deaf, Philippine Deaf Resource Center, Philippine Coalition on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, De La Salle-College of St. Benilde: School of Deaf Education and Applied Deaf Studies and Center for Education Access and Development, University of the Philippines College of Education, Special Education Area, Anthropology Department and UP Layap, and the 170+ Talaytayan MLE Inc.
To resolve the controversy, Alliance for Concerned Teachers Rep. Antonio Tinio organized a dialogue last Sept. 12 between the DepEd and the Filipino deaf community and its stakeholders. In that dialogue, Rep. Magtanggol T. Gunigundo, author of House Bill No. 162 (An Act Establishing a Multi-lingual Education and Literacy Program), read a statement of support for FSL. He pointed out that Department of Education Order No. 74, series of 2009, clearly states that the child’s first language should be the medium of instruction in the early years. In the case of deaf children, this should be FSL and not English, or SEE.
The Philippine Federation of the Deaf invoked the rights to education, language, linguistic identity and deaf culture as stated in Art. 24 and 30 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). It “calls on the State, through the Department of Education, to immediately, effectively and fully: halt the violation of the rights to language, culture, participation and self-determination of deaf Filipinos; and institute, facilitate and promote all appropriate measures to guarantee the full enjoyment of these rights.”
The Philippine Deaf Resource Center likewise called on the state to recognize the existence of Filipino Sign Language as a true and legitimate visual language, citing research on its structure, socio-linguistics, and applications. It also called for the declaration of FSL as the national sign language in fulfillment of international commitments (i.e., Salamanca Statement, UNCRPD) consistent with Art. 5 of the 1997 SPED Policies and Guidelines.
Education Secretary Armin Luistro responded by saying that priority should be given to action-oriented measures such as mapping resources at the regional and division levels, and crafting inclusive programs, parallel to that of other disadvantaged sectors. He directed the formation of a small group of deaf and hearing experts to coordinate with his office regarding the above.
It was evident from the dialogue that the DepEd needs to situate its understanding of communication and language in the context of empirical research and not on its own definitions and operationalization of total communication, and the bilingual goal for the deaf.
The following notions are also highly questionable: that the sign language for training and certifying teachers is “formal” sign language; that the only way to standardize sign language is to certify teachers; and that FSL is a language that I created.
In this regard, SPED has to re-craft its programs consistent with local policy and international commitments. To many deaf education stakeholders, SPED officials as well as the academic teaching institutions which have granted them their advanced degrees are seriously disconnected from research and information and from the progressive reality that education is a basic human right and a fundamental development goal. They need to be able to overcome their inability, or perhaps unwillingness, to recognize that the deaf children they once taught are now educated, experienced adults who are speaking their mind and asserting their right to self-determination. Rank, advanced degrees and the ability to hear cannot supplant the legitimate human experience of the deaf community.
The SPED experience in formal education contrasts with that of the Bureau of Alternative Learning Systems (BALS) which has actively initiated training in learning Filipino Sign Language. Last year in February, Director Carolina Guerrero requested the Philippine Federation of the Deaf to hold an FSL Training for Mobile Teachers for 80 teachers from the various regions. The BALS teachers are already using FSL including areas in Mindanao such as Basilan.
The receptiveness and resolute action of BALS for its teachers to become fluent FSL signers is because of an unencumbered view on the ground of the realities of literacy and survival for many isolated, poor and rural deaf children, youth and adults. (To be concluded)
Dr. Liza Martinez is one of only two hearing sign linguists trained at the renowned deaf institution, Gallaudet University (Washington, D.C.). She is the founder and director of the Philippine Deaf Resource Center.
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