FEMA abandons the deaf community in Puerto Rico

My friend Josefina Belaval explains what FEMA has done to the deaf community in Puerto Rico that is still recovering after the hurricanes Irma and Maria.


Agency cancelled the service of interpreters in Puerto Rican sign language and forces deaf people who do not have the proper equipment to use tablets to communicate in English, even if they do not understand

GUAYNABO, PR, May 26, 2018 – The Deaf Autonomous Movement, (M.A.S. for its acronym in Spanish) on behalf of the entire deaf community in Puerto Rico composed of over 200,000 people, denounced the open discrimination and lack of access to information by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), that abruptly canceled the service of sign language interpreters in its service centers to help the deaf around the island.

The complaint was made at a press conference with a large group of deaf people and leaders of the local deaf community leaders who belong to M.A.S., headed by several board members of the organization including treasurer María del Carmen Cruz; sub-treasurer Josefina Belaval, and the representative of the Southwest region of the island José Vélez.

“They have to respect our culture. It is the culture of deaf Puerto Ricans and we have our own language. Sign language is not a universal language. Each country and each region have its language and that has to be respected, “said Cruz.

FEMA cancelled contracts with sign language interpreters on Friday and wants to force deaf people that go to their service centers to use tablets or Ipads connected to a video system (known as a VRI) where they can communicate with interpreters in the United States. The problem with that alternative is that the majority of the deaf people in Puerto Rico do not understand sign language in English nor the American Sign Language (ASL). In fact, on the Island there are entire communities of deaf families in isolated rural areas such as Orocovis, Comerío, Moca and other towns where they do not even understand Puerto Rican sign language.

“In FEMA they use American Sign Language and United States English sign language, but the sign language in Puerto Rico is different. Nor the deaf community in Puerto Rico use the VRI service. We are Puerto Rican, I am Puerto Rican and my language is Puerto Rican sign language. We hardly use ASL here. I do not agree with using American sign language because that is not used here, “said Belaval.

Velez, on the other hand, recalled that there are several federal laws to protect the service provided to functional diversity communities. Among these laws he mentioned the “Federal Rehabilitation Act” that determines that no federal entity – such as FEMA – can discriminate against people with disabilities. In addition, there is the federal “ADA” or “American with Disabilities Act,” which prohibits discrimination in government agencies and requires sign interpreters when necessary. “I recommend that you have different interpreters who know a variety of communication methods such as basic signs up to the most complex language. We need local interpreters who understand the linguistics of the Puerto Rican Sign Language, which is a unique language, but we also need interpreters who know home signs for the deaf who cannot read or write or even speak in sign language, “said Vélez.

Facial expression and body language are integral parts of Sign Language and deaf culture. It is a formally recognized language, with its own rich grammatical structure and characterized by the configuration of the hands, movements, orientations, spatial location and the non-manual elements such as lip, facial and lingual movements. Each country has its own sign language. However, Puerto Rico is one of the richest in the world because it is the oldest and it uses local gestures as well as some in English and others from several European and Latin American countries.

Governor Ricardo Rosselló recently signed into law a bill to teach sign language in public schools in a pilot project. The legislation was presented by minority pro-independence Senator Juan Dalmau and in a historic move, it was approved unanimously by both legislative bodies. M.A.S. and the deaf community are waiting to initiate the dialogue with the Department of Education and publicly offers it willingness to collaborate with Education Secretary Julia Keleher in the design of the curriculum.

M.A.S. was organized in August of 2017 and in less than a month it already had almost 3,000 deaf members. The organization plans changed after Hurricane Maria, because they found that the most abandoned communities were the deaf, and organized aid around the island. That process is still undergoing.

“I feel heartbroken and the whole deaf community is very worried because there are many deaf people who have not received FEMA services since hurricanes Irma and María, or who are looking for help. We found out on Friday afternoon that FEMA decided t

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