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Filipino deaf community’s access to information in the time of COVID-19



Photo by Jesdelton Romo

In the past few days, what was once the busiest place in Luzon has become almost a ghost town. Since authorities declared an enhanced community quarantine, Metro Manila has become quiet.

Filipinos are trying to cope with the series of adjustments being rolled out by authorities in order to prevent COVID-19 from spreading further. Within a week, the numbers skyrocketed from 49 confirmed cases on March 11 to over 390 as of writing. The government has held multiple press conferences, and news and spreading the right information is more important than ever. Media helps people get informed about the current state of our country and updates us about the rules and regulations of quarantine. Through the media, government information sharing is more efficient and accurate.

Jay Lardizabal

Photo from Jay Lardizabal

Still, during times of crises, some information may not be disseminated properly and marginalized groups tend to be left in the dark, particularly the deaf community.

This is not new to them, over the years the deaf community has been deprived of access to vital information, which can put their lives at risk. With a large population that included deaf parents or adults who are responsible for their family during a state of calamity, not having access to information can become a matter of life and death.

Because of this, an alliance was formed by deaf and hearing advocates to provide equal access to deaf Filipinos. Volunteer interpreters gather online, virtually conduct meetings and monitor news daily to disseminate information through social media. What’s more challenging is that all of them do this while on quarantine. How? They conduct a livestream or record a video while interpreting news from TV or online. Volunteers create a shifting schedule to distribute the responsibility—from the interpreters, to tech support, to the editors. The team of editors, both deaf and hearing, edits the videos and clips it beside the news source for more visual clarity.


Photo from Mj Auch

While most of the team members are from Metro Manila, Filipino interpreters all the way from Cebu, Bacolod, Davao, Iloilo, Cotabato, Baguio, and the US are also contributing to disseminate information to their respective deaf communities. They also have a team of Filipino sign language (FSL) translators consisting of four deaf and one hearing with experience in sign linguistics research, language planning, and policy, all working with grassroots deaf community organizations through the Philippine Federation of the Deaf. The hearing person in this translation team is the sole sign language linguist in the Philippines. They coined 107 FSL signs, most commonly used terms in COVID-19 information advisories and briefings, as well as selected terms relating to the enhanced community quarantine.

According to Noemi Pamintuan-Jara, the group is committed to keeping deaf people’s right to information through the use of FSL and its features as a true visual language in interpreting government advisories and news updates. The alliance believes that this is the most efficient, fastest, and clearest way of sharing information to the Filipino deaf community.


Photo from Febe Sevilla

Philippine Federation of the Deaf president Carolyn Dagani notes that FSL is the national sign language of the Filipino Deaf and it is protected by Republic Act 11106, which declares FSL as the official sign language of government in all transactions involving the Deaf and mandating its use in schools, broadcast media, and workplaces. Its use is also a right guaranteed by the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities, adopted by the Philippine government in 2008.

The alliance believes in the critical importance of safeguarding the health of sign language interpreters, particularly the few top level national interpreters, and of national deaf leaders who are at the forefront of the advocacy.

The alliance was formed after recognizing the lack of sign language interpreters in TV stations during the announcement of the community quarantine. Because social distancing is highly encouraged, deaf and hearing advocates had to think fast and the most efficient way was through an online platform. But this doesn’t mean that it has all been a walk in the park. Interpreters had to designate a portion of their houses as their workstation to comply with the standards of TV inset: interpreter wearing dark-colored shirts in front of a plain white or dark background. Some of the interpreters had to improvise with their camera and lighting set ups. Since current events are unpredictable, they have to always be on stand-by.

Ember Parpa

Photo from Ember Parpa

“The alliance believes in the critical importance of safeguarding the health of sign language interpreters, particularly the few top level national interpreters, and of national deaf leaders who are at the forefront of the advocacy,” says Natividad Natividad, Philippine National Association of Sign Language Interpreters (PNASLI) president.

Naty Natividad

Photo from Naty Natividad

Maria Cresta, a deaf mother with a deaf daughter, expressed her gratitude to the volunteers. “I really think that this is important for us deaf people. Whenever we do not have access to information like these, we feel like we are a burden to our hearing family members. We wouldn’t know what to do, where to go, how to ask for help, we feel like our family always has to carry us, but with interpreters on TV, we can be independent,” she says. “We feel empowered and confident because we know what is going on and, in return, we are able to help members of our family during crisis.”

Roni Abat

Photo from Hergil Roni Abat

More than TV insets, Cresta also emphasized the importance of accessibility in communication. “If a deaf person needs to call the hospital in case of an emergency, or if her family needs another supply of basic needs, will she be able to use the phone? It’s important that service providers also know that there are people like us who use sign language to communicate,” she says. “I am grateful for these interpreters who give their time to serve our community. Their service helps us feel that we are part of this society. It is truly empowering.”

It is crucial for persons with disability to receive necessary services for their specific needs, like access to information. Thankfully, there are individuals who imbibe the spirit of bayanihan in these dark moments. They teach us how to contribute and be creative by doing what we can to help others while also using our “voice” and, if needed, our hands, to fight and advocate for equal rights. It may be “silent,” but it doesn’t mean that it cannot be heard.

Note: The alliance is an autonomous, purely voluntary Civil Society Organization/ Disabled Persons’ Organization initiative, and is not attached to any TV station or media group. Scheduling of newscasts and public affairs to interpret are typically just a result of convenience and time of advance notice. 

For more information, check out the Facebook Page of the Alliance:  

Source: Manila Bulletin (

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