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Living without a voice Printable Version PRINTABLE VERSION
by Kat Birch, United Kingdom Apr 20, 2006
Human Rights   Opinions


The Philippine National Office of Statistics (NSO) estimated their population at over 84 million in 2005 and the number of people living with a disability (PWD) as somewhere in the region of 943,000. According to the World Health Organization, a general rule of thumb is that within any population one in ten people will have a disability. Following this rule would mean there are currently about 7.5 million disabled Filipinos living unrecognized and unacknowledged by the government. 50% of the Filipino population is of school age (20 years or below) however, statistics show that only a little over 1% of school children have special needs, meaning that almost 90% of children with disabilities are either not enrolled at school or their disability is not being recognized.

The compounding effects of a lack of education are demonstrated particularly starkly in the deaf community. Filipino Sign Language (FSL) remains unrecognized by the government. In the past, well meaning missionaries and concerned citizens, aiming to give the deaf people of the Philippines a voice within a hearing society, taught American Sign Language to those who could attend their classes. Modern FSL has its roots in both ASL as well as the older indigenous sign languages that existed throughout the country before the arrival of ASL.

The Philippines is a country of over 70 languages, with Tagalog (the language from the region around the capital Manila) and English identified as the country’s official languages. Most hearing people will speak their local dialect, possibly a dialect from a neighboring region, as well as some Tagalog and English – the languages of education. Most deaf people will sign in a regional variation of FSL and those that have been educated will be able to read and write in basic English. Very few will be able to understand any written Philippine language, which leaves them almost completely cut off from society.

People with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to abuse, especially women and children. There has been no recorded conviction of anyone accused of having committed a sexual assault on a deaf woman or child since the beginning of the 20th century, the fault of which must be leveled at the politicians and law courts. There is no legal requirement to hire a translator for a deaf person in court. As a result, supposedly hundreds of deaf people have sat through trials either as the accused or as the victim (defendant?) with little to no idea what is going on around them. Most of the deaf people currently on death row in the Philippines will never have had a chance to either defend themselves or to hear of what they are accused.

The people who most often suffer from abuse are those least able to defend themselves. Disability causes poverty as it often results in exclusion and marginalization, reducing the capacity of people with disabilities to function and interact within the larger society. It is often beyond the financial ability of the victims to hire a translator. It is more common for the accused to hire one, meaning that everything that the deaf person wishes to communicate comes through the mouth of someone in the pay of their abuser.

It is time for the Philippine government to put a premium on giving deaf people a voice by formally recognizing Filipino Sign Language and teaching it in a standardized manner across the country. The Philippines’ deaf community must be allowed to have input into the laws which affect them, and they should be able to teach the hearing community how they should be implemented -- for example, teaching hearing court translators how to most effectively represent deaf witnesses.

Deaf women and children will continue to be abused as long as they remain ignorant of their rights, and this will continue to happen as long as there is no effective education and they are left unable to be understood and to understand the hearing society in which they live.

The Philippines is one of the 46 countries to sign up to “The Full Participation and Equality of People with Disabilities in the Asian and Pacific Region.” While it is reassuring to see that the Filipino government believes in the full participation and equality of disabled people, it would be better to see them actively working towards a future where that is possible.



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Kat Birch

Kat Birch, The Philippines

katie | Jun 23rd, 2007
my brother has recently returned from the philippines on a exchange program. i understand the difficulties experinced in that country.

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