By Chanyel Fritz Tome

The Filipino Sign Language (FSL) alphabet including numbers.
Illustration by: Clyde Francis Tome

Languages play a daily part of everyone's lives, and in a multilingual country like the Philippines, it is possible to hear English, Filipino, and Cebuano (or other languages depending on where the listeners are) in the same room. But not every Filipino is able to hear these languages — and had it not been for the Filipino Sign Language (FSL), the Deaf Filipino community would have been left disenfranchised.

The FSL is a visual/spatial language used by the Filipino Deaf to communicate with others, and is considered separate from written Filipino or other languages in general. Around 120,000 Deaf Filipinos rely on this unique language to relay their information, especially for COVID-19. However, the pandemic has made the back-breaking job of FSL interpreters more difficult, with its specific and term-heavy nature and complex logistics — and yet more significant.

FSL Challenges amid COVID-19

Since the index (first) case of COVID-19 back in January 2020, science communication grew in importance especially when relaying crucial information about the virus and protocols. However, while specific terms such as COVID-19, quarantine, and vaccines exist for spoken languages, the unique grammatical rules and semantics of FSL makes it difficult to translate and understand these terms for the Filipino Deaf.

"It is likely difficult for them to follow interpreting in a TV newscast, for example, because of their communication skills, which may be limited solely to gestures," Noemi Pamintuan-Jara, co-founder of the Development and Accessibility Fund for the Deaf, said.

But that did not stop efforts to effective science communication for the Deaf. Thus, people from the Deaf community and advocates formed the Filipino Sign Language Access Team for COVID-19 (FSLACT4COVID19), which recognized the value of filling in the information gap for the Deaf. Dedicated to relaying public announcements and news broadcasts to the Deaf community, the group operates through their Facebook page and volunteers.

"The initial batch of volunteers and core group members jumped to action when the [quarantine] was announced knowing that they’re running against time in relaying and explaining this news to the Deaf community," Pamintuan-Jara stated.
Volunteerism is only part of the story, though. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the logistics inside FSL interpretation were severely hampered as well. Interpreters in the group had to rely on the only available medium they had – the Internet.

"The team constantly goes through 17-hour work days to ensure that no one in the Deaf community is left behind," Pamintuan-Jara added.

Volunteers inside the group recalled having to send files constantly to each other, and relying on online banking for their financial transactions and prepaid load for their connection. However, with the Philippines' notoriety for unreliable connections, their operations have sometimes been compromised.

Even after they have overcome these obstacles, there are instances when the FSL interpreters are made fun of. During the relaying of crucial information in the COVID-19 pandemic, netizens have poked fun at sign language interpreters, jokingly asking why are these people making TikTok dances in the corner of the screen during news broadcasts.

These jokes caught the attention of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), and stated that such jokes downplay the success of the Deaf community against COVID-19.

"We urge everyone to be as humane and inclusive in this time of a national health emergency," Jacqueline de Guia, CHR spokesperson, told everyone. "As we call for everyone’s participation in curbing the spread of COVID-19, let us truly ensure that no one gets left behind by guaranteeing that the deaf, those hard of hearing, and other persons with disabilities have access to timely and relevant information, and they too have an opportunity for their concerns to be heard and seen."

But while many of these challenges are exacerbated by COVID-19, many obstacles have hindered FSL even before the pandemic.

FSL Challenges prior to COVID-19

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, FSL interpreters received little to no benefit from the national government.

For instance, FSL interpreters in courtrooms have faced death threats and receive no protection from law enforcement. Some are even forced to back out of court cases.

Outside the courtroom, interpreters suffer from under or misrepresentation as they are typically stereotyped as charity workers. As a result, they are often unrecognized, unpaid, and treated as replaceable assets.

Liwanag Caldito, teacher of Deaf kids in Pasay and founder of Philippine National Association of Sign Language Interpreters (PNASLI), was unable to work due to her contracting Parkinson's disease – one she suffered after a robbing incident in her school. Meanwhile, another PNASLI founder, Flordeliza Presnillo, died from breast cancer.

Both of them received little to no aid from the government despite their services.

Lack of interpreters have also been attributed as a problem in the Filipino Deaf community. Back in 2013 during the peak of Super Typhoon Yolanda's landfall, the Deaf were left behind because there were no FSL interpreters available in the affected areas.

"Walang access, walang nag-sabi, walang media, walang FSL na nandiyan," Jay Lardizabal, FSL educator, recalled.

Lack of interpreter accessibility also caused issues for the Deaf especially in the hospital, where they typically had to pay for an interpreter's fee by themselves on top of the doctor's fee and other medical expenses.

Even more outrage sparked when in 2017, the Senate asked blind, not deaf representatives to explain to them what FSL is. The Deaf community were left behind in the hearing, unable to speak for themselves. There were no actual FSL interpreters or advocates around.

"The deaf must be represented. Hearing people should never decide for us for whatever the issues are," Hazel Bual, Deaf Advocacy Program Coordinator at the De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde School of Deaf Education and Applied Studies, signed. 

"In terms of access, we are very different. We have a very different perspective. You cannot tell us that you know more than us because this is our experience. Allow us to feel, allow us to express ourselves, to inform the people about what our experiences, narratives, and perspectives are. Don’t set us aside," she added.

FSL Challenges in the Future

Despite the hurdles they faced, however, FSL interpreters and the Deaf community remain committed to their jobs and identity.

In fact, constant lobbying culminated in the signing of the Republic Act 11106 or the Filipino Sign Language Act in 2018. Under the act, the Philippine government officially recognized FSL as the national sign language, and mandated its use in broadcast media, schools, and workplaces.

However, the work is still far from done. While FSL has been recognized as the national sign language, outside influences still put the language itself at risk. 

For instance, many Filipinos still think that the American Sign Language (ASL) is the only sign language and that it is used universally, including in the Philippines. Other Filipinos think that the ASL is superior to the FSL, owing to the mindset that English is a more posh language than Filipino.

"Some people believe that ASL is the same as the English language and that FSL is the same as Tagalog. The stigma of English being a better language than Filipino was then transferred to sign languages," the Center for Education Access and Development (CEAD) said.

However, the CEAD FSL reasserted that Americans have their own culture with the ASL, and the Filipinos have theirs with FSL; therefore, the two sign languages cannot be compared.

Much about the FSL still remains to be cleared as well through different studies of the language. For example, field data from the Philippine Federation of the Deaf (PFD) proposed possible varieties of the FSL – the Eastern Visayas group (Leyte) and the Southern Tagalog group (Southern Tagalog, Bicol, and Palawan varieties) – proving that FSL, like ASL, is not universal. Another study titled "FSL Compilation of Signs from Regions of the Philippines Part Two" showed that the word 'pig' has at least 20 variations across the country.

Linguists have also constantly reminded everyone that the FSL and spoken Filipino are different.

"The FSL has nothing to do with spoken Filipino," Dr. Marie Therese Angeline Bustos commented.

But FSL interpreters do not only have misconceptions to clear. As the Deaf community's gateway to the rest of society, interpreters are also being tapped as part of the Philippines' COVID-19 response. Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian has called on local government units (LGU) to get FSL interpreters in vaccination sites to assist the Deaf.

"It is important that we can fully support our PWDs (persons with disabilities) especially since not everyone has guardians," Sen. Gatchalian stated in Filipino.

FSL interpreters go through ridicule and underrepresentation to give the Deaf community a voice in society, making FSL interpretation a back-breaking one. However, it is also what makes the fruit much sweeter especially for the people they serve – the Deaf community – for they provide a voice to the otherwise underrepresented minority in Philippine society.

Indeed, the story and challenges of FSL interpreters prove that actions literally speak louder than words.