Celebrating our National Sign Language
The World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) was established on Sept. 23, 1951, in Rome. This date is now celebrated as the International Day of Sign Languages worldwide. In over six decades, the WFD has grown from 25 to 125 national deaf federations around the globe.
In 2015, Maartje de Meulder (and later in 2017, with other WFD leaders Joseph Murray and Kaj Kraus) published global statistics on the national recognition of sign languages. With the Filipino Sign Language (FSL) Act in 2018, the Philippines joined 41 other countries that legally recognized their sign languages. In Asia, only 2 out of 42 countries have recognized their sign language. Globally, legislation on sign language may come in the form of: (1) constitutional recognition, (2) general language legislation, (3) a sign language law or act, (4) a sign language law or act with other means of communication, (5) a national language council recognition, and (6) disability legislation.
The 2018 FSL Act as a sign language law follows the experience of 15 other countries or territories: Slovakia (1995), Uruguay (2001), Brazil (2002), Slovenia (2002), Wallonia (Belgium, 2003), Cyprus (2006), Flanders (Belgium, 2006), Bosnia and Herzegovina (2009), Catalonia (Spain, 2010), Finland, Serbia, South Korea, Scotland (all in 2015), and Malta (2016).
Seven years before the FSL Act, Republic Acts No. 10410 (Early Years Act) and No. 10533 (Enhanced Basic Education Act) recognized FSL as the visual language, as well as the first language and mother tongue, of deaf learners in the country. In the same year, the Department of Education defined and included FSL in its Mother Tongue Based-Multilingual Education (MTB-MLE) program’s Curriculum Guide for Kinder to Grade 3. Sadly, the implementation of these two earlier laws only began this year.
RA 11106 declares FSL as the official language in government, the medium of instruction in the education of deaf learners, as well as the national sign language. This legal development is a milestone in the recognition not only of FSL but also of the rights of deaf Filipinos.
However, a number of development projects, even international and nationally funded ones, are run FOR rather than OF the deaf. Deaf persons must be fully and effectively included and allowed to participate in all matters pertaining to sign language planning, management, and evaluation. Knowledgeable and experienced deaf persons must be in positions to influence decisions in the DepEd, Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino, Civil Service Commission, National Council on Disability Affairs, and other agencies.
The roles particularly of the DepEd (in early and basic education of deaf children) and the Commission on Higher Education (on teacher preparation) are critical. Deaf teachers themselves are mandated by no less than the United Nations to be trained and hired in the public school system. A National Curriculum for FSL Teaching as the L1 (or first language) of deaf learners, as well as an L2/ L3 of hearing adults, is already underway.
Research on the structure and sociolinguistics of FSL and the concept of a Filipino deaf culture are directed by RA 11106 to be led by the University of the Philippines. The creation of the UP’s FSL Task Force for the entire university system in 2019 shall be key in coordinating a national research agenda for FSL, particularly among state universities and colleges.
Despite the tremendous challenges of the COVID-19 crisis, milestones continue to be attained in institutionalizing and including FSL in governance. State systems will forever be changed because of the entry of the national visual language, a context that has been defined only by what is spoken and written. Deaf Filipinos, not only as persons with disabilities but also as a true linguistic and cultural group, now take their place as contributors to the national heritage and the history of the world.
Celebrate the International Day of Sign Languages today!
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Liza B. Martinez, PhD, is a Filipino sign linguist.
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