CEBU CITY, CEBU—For John Paul Ecarme Maunes, deafness is not a disability in itself. More often than not, it is society’s limited understanding that deaf people actually can communicate and listen —visually, that is.
A decade ago when he was in high school, John Paul, or JP, was diagnosed with a brain condition making him disabled due to psychological trauma. It took the help of a deaf person named Peter Paul to make JP realize to get back on his feet again and make the most of life.
“He showed me that being deaf is not a hindrance to communicate and live life fully. He was mimicking how to play the guitar, the drums or even signaling that he would call me at home if ever I felt down,” JP says.
“He (Peter Paul) was able to make me realize that I can overcome my illness; if he can live life happily despite being a deaf mute, why can’t I?”
Drawing inspiration from Peter Paul’s joy for life, JP got well from his disease and started learning sign language and immersed himself in the “visual world” of the deaf community.
“There’s more good things about deafness than just being deaf—the person itself, their capabilities, and even the unique community. When you get into their community, deaf persons are actually talking with their hands and are listening with their eyes—looking at your hand signals and your facial expressions.”
Only a few people take the time and chance to understand and listen to our deaf brothers using sign language. Among the favorite signs that he learned from Peter Paul was the “I love you” sign, which speaks the universal language of love across nations, and the sign of development depicted by interlacing fingers of both hands raised above the chest.
Spending most of his high school life learning hand signals and communicating with a deaf community in the village of Banilad, JP and eight other friends eventually co-founded nonprofit group Gualandi Volunteer Service Programme Inc.
“According to the deaf, the problem is not about their hearing or their inability to do so, it is the hearing world that doesn’t listen to them. When we spend a minute of our time to listen to what we are saying, we can accommodate them and understand their problems so we can help them,” he says.
Deafness does not affect the intellect of the person but the language barrier is a big hindrance to tap the person’s talents and achieve their full potential, JP explains.
Basic education in the country, for example, is only tailored for normal learners so deaf kids have a hard time keeping up with their classmates, particularly in subjects that require speaking skills.
The lack of deaf curriculum in public schools is also a reason why most families decide against sending their deaf kids to school in the belief that they cannot keep up with the learning anyway. “That is just sad because you will see how the deaf persons have to struggle even with communication with their family,” JP says.
To this end, Gualandi is working with the Department of Education for drafting a K+12 deaf curriculum that can be adopted in schools. JP hopes for long-term training to implement the curriculum and to equip the teachers with better skills when teaching deaf and deaf-mute students.
Families and even younger deaf kids, he says, are taking inspiration from graduate deaf professionals who overcame their disability to succeed. Most kids in the community where Gualandi works are now taking up education courses in college so they can teach deaf students and improve the quality of education for deaf students.
This still remains a challenge, though, because of the lack of appropriate “skills matrix” for measuring the communication skills of deaf applicants for licensure exams at the Professional Regulatory Commission (PRC).
Most deaf teacher applicants would Filipino and Social Studies, which are mostly taught in the Filipino language – proof of the need to revisit the education system for deaf mute individuals, says JP. In this connection, a World Census report said that 90 percent of deaf individuals lack a regular job due to their condition.
Says JP: “Based on current PRC rules, sign language is related and grouped with written language. That should not be the case because sign language is a very visual language—we draw pictures in the air.”
Educating the deaf and empowering them to express themselves is a way of emancipating them and protecting them from crimes and abuse.
A study conducted by the Philippine Deaf Resource Center revealed that one in three deaf kids are abused at home by their relatives or friends. The inability to speak up and communicate what happened to them already marginalizes them from getting justice and opens them up for future abuses, says JP.
The group is currently rehabilitating some of the cases discovered during community visits under a project towards creating a Deaf Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Network in the Philippines.
Another project that the advocacy group is organizing is the “Fully Abled Nation” that aims to help persons with disabilities, particularly deaf people to register and cast their vote in the 2013 midterm elections.
For JP and other volunteers like him who advocate for a better future of deaf and other marginalized individuals, there is a lot more to be done as people still overlook someone’s potential just because he or she is deaf.
“I hope to change that one day and to make more people appreciate our deaf brothers without prejudice and to see them see the person beyond the disability,” he said.