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News for the Deaf community: Meet the Filipino Sign Language Access Team for COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a disruption of our day-to-day activities. During this time, we are all encouraged to stay home—if we can—and to remain vigilant. Now more than ever, we are reliant on daily news broadcasts and trusted sources on social media. Access to credible and accurate information regarding the pandemic and the preventive measures being implemented are essential for our daily survival.

However, not all Filipinos have television sets or access to the internet. Furthermore, we are also faced with another aspect to consider: not all Filipinos speak or understand the language being used during broadcasts. In order to cater to all Filipinos, measures such as including translations and providing an interpreter are necessary. 

As such, sometimes found in the corner of live news broadcasts, is a Filipino Sign Language (FSL) interpreter, who relays information to the Deaf community while the news anchor speaks. While FSL interpreters are present in some streams, their incorporation has not yet pervaded all broadcasts and newscasts, thus potentially hindering members of the Deaf community from proper access to pertinent information. 

One group has recognized the need to fill the gap in order to relay crucial knowledge regarding the pandemic to the Deaf—the Filipino Sign Language Access Team for COVID-19 (FSLACT4COVID19) is a volunteer team composed of members of the Deaf community and fellow advocates dedicated to relaying integral government announcements and news broadcasts in FSL.

Speaking in signs 

Filipino Sign Language is a visual/spatial language and, according to the 2016 Department of Education curriculum guide, it is distinct from spoken and written Filipino. John Xandre Baliza, a sign language interpreter and faculty member of the De La Salle-College of St. Benilde (DLS-CSB) School of Deaf Education and Applied Studies, shares that oftentimes “people confuse FSL with spoken Filipino, which is far from the truth.” The ”Filipino” in FSL refers to the Filipino Deaf community who use the language, as well as the Filipino Deaf culture it is embedded in, as Baliza clarifies. 

He notes that FSL has “its own unique linguistic properties” such as grammatical rules, syntax, and semantics. Republic Act 11106, also known as the Filipino Sign Language Law, legally recognizes FSL to have “equal status with other existing languages in the country.” Despite this legal recognition, though, FSL is still an underrepresented language in media, even with the current form of live FSL interpretation through TV insets.

Accessing information through television and social media thus proves difficult for the Deaf community due to the limited number of qualified FSL interpreters in the country—according to a joint statement issued by Carol Dagani, president of the Philippine Federation of the Deaf, and Yvette Apurado, FSLACT4COVID19 Filipino Sign Language Signs Team Deaf Lead, and translated from FSL to English by FSL linguist Dr. Liza Martinez.

Furthermore, the Deaf themselves are diverse, with different people having mixed mastery of FSL dependent on their educational attainment as well as their proximity and extent of interaction with other members of the Deaf community. 

“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,” discusses Noemi Pamintuan-Jara, the media team leader of FSLACT4COVID19 and co-founder of the Development and Accessibility Fund for the Deaf.

Working under quarantine

FSLACT4COVID19 aims to disseminate information regarding COVID-19 to the Philippine Deaf community, providing news coverage in FSL outside of mainstream media’s broadcasts. Operating through their Facebook page, it is an alliance composed of more than 70 volunteer interpreters, FSL advocates, creatives, healthcare workers, and allies hailing from Luzon, Visayas, Mindanao, and the United States. 

“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 says. Content such as news translations or livestreams are now regularly uploaded on the page.

Providing crucial information, especially in these unfamiliar circumstances, cannot be emphasized enough, as Pamintuan-Jara references an incident where a deaf street dweller initially resisted rescue and aid from social workers due to being uninformed about the Enhanced Community Quarantine measures. She furthers, “Lack of access to important and timely information during a crisis can lead to confusion…[The Deaf community may] unknowingly [break] guidelines enforced by law enforcers.”

Since their launch last March 14, the team constantly goes through 17-hour work days, Pamintuan-Jara reveals, to ensure that no one in the Deaf community is left behind.

With quarantine measures in effect, the internet is the only way all the teams can operate and collaborate with one another. “Files are constantly being exchanged, online banking is tapped for donations, and prepaid load and support—especially for the Deaf volunteers—are continuously supplied,” as relayed by Apurado and Dagani’s joint statement. However, since the country’s internet connection is quite unreliable, the team experienced their share of unstable connections and slow upload speeds. They would resort to using mobile data, but it is a hefty cost that usually comes from the volunteer’s own pockets.

A bridge between voices

The collective effort of this team has allowed the Deaf community to gain a clearer picture of the situation of the country.

Most of the team’s interpreters became media interpreters in response to the pandemic, despite a lack of formal training—including Baliza himself, as he learned most of his FSL by regularly interacting with the Deaf. Without a formal tertiary degree for basic sign language interpretation, there is currently no system for specialized training nor a certification for broadcast interpreters. In fact, Baliza reveals that most of the interpreters in the team are first-timers in live broadcast signing. “This was their baptism of fire,” he describes.

Moreover, live interpreting is much more challenging compared to regular signing. The interpreter must receive constant audio information in Filipino, English, and other regional languages from the speaker or the news anchor, capture the essence of the message then translate its main idea to FSL in such a way that it can be understood by a large Deaf audience—all while being streamed in real-time, leaving no room for mistakes. 

“These complex processes are happening while we simultaneously do quality checks on our interpretation [such as avoiding] sign errors and skewed messages,” Baliza adds. 

Ultimately, Baliza summarizes the role of the interpreter as a compromise between TV stations’ resources and the needs of the Deaf community. The former cannot always promise a slot in the next news broadcast, so interpreters must constantly find ways to mediate crucial information to the Deaf community.

“The reference to us as ‘cultural ambassadors’ might sound nice on paper, but it is a lot of hard work,” he remarks. Their craft is one that takes years to master as the language continues to evolve. They must further adapt as different needs arise depending on the present circumstances, like the complex and terminology-heavy nature of the ongoing pandemic.

What the Deaf community and their band of interpreters need is to be recognized by institutions such as the government to allow more interpreters to become qualified for live broadcast signing. Baliza shares that DLS-CSB will be implementing an Interpreting Education program by 2021. This can help get more information to be presented in FSL, but only if broadcast stations will have the resources to incorporate the interpreters. 

“Inasmuch [as] we (interpreters) have been allies to the Deaf community, we also need hearing allies to support us in our efforts to be recognized as legitimate professionals,” he stresses.

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