Josefina Belaval of Puerto Rico recently posted on YouTube that FEMA is now abandoning the deaf community in Puerto Rico. In her short video, she explains that she was shocked to find out that FEMA made the decision to break from their contract obligations to provide ASL/PRSL interpreters for the Deaf Community in Puerto Rico. She explains that Puerto Rico Sign Language (PRSL), American Sign Language (ASL) and Signed Exact English (SEE) are not the same languages. Her thoughts that their interpreters should know all various differences in those languages and be able to match their level of professionalism to match what is being translated within the Deaf Community.
According to an unverified article, “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.”
Maria del Carmen Cruz, their treasurer is quoted as saying, “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”.
FEMA decided to cancel their contracts with various sign language interpreters last Friday to go for a more convenient option for FEMA by mandating that deaf people go to their service centers and use tablets and/or iPads to connect to a VRS or VRI system to communicate with interpreters that work in the United States. The issue with this, according to Deaf Autonomous Movement (MAS) 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.
Belaval is quoted in the video, “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”.
Josefina Belaval mentioned that there are some laws that protect such services such as the Federal Rehabilitation Act, however, as to specific laws in general are not well known in the Puerto Rico community.
“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.
Josefina believes that FEMA is breaking the law by not offering an qualified interpreter during the on-going crisis in Puerto Rico.
DID YOU KNOW? The Puerto Rican deaf community has at least 100 years of documented history, with the first deaf school established in the early 1900s. There has been significant contact with the United States politically and educationally and deaf Puerto Ricans have the same legal rights as deaf people living in the United States because they are included under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Deaf schools, ministries, associations, and organizations are all working for and with the deaf community to meet its linguistic and social needs. Interpreting services are growing both through the four established agencies and video relay services, but there is still a significant lack of interpreters to be able to meet the needs of the deaf population, with estimated numbers between 8,000 and 340,000. Although Puerto Rican Sign Language (PRSL) may have been present before the establishment of the first school and its use of Signed English and American Sign Language (ASL), high amounts of contact with the deaf community in the United States and continued use of ASL in deaf schools have led to ASL being the majority sign language of Puerto Rico. Now, with relay and interpreting services offered from places both within the United States and Puerto Rico, ASL is seeing even more use and standardization in the country.