Breaking barriers: ‘High’ demand for Anthro 198 reveals need for FSL course

A roomful of students thoroughly watched their professor, making sure not to misplace a finger, which could entirely change one’s message in sign language. Among them was Gabriel Federico, a music major, preparing not only for the next letter to sign but also for the moment he always knew would come. 

He hopes to learn Filipino Sign Language (FSL) as early as now, for it is only a matter of time before he loses his own ability to hear.

The 22-year-old was born with an audiological condition that causes his sense of hearing to gradually diminish, leaving him no choice but to use a hearing aid to communicate and attend his classes.

The University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman, where Gab studies, has yet to offer a course focused on FSL. So when he found out about Anthro 198, an elective that teaches even just a few basics, he immediately enlisted in the class.

Anthro 198 (Filipino Deaf community and Filipino Sign Language) is a special topics subject that aims to teach students the fundamentals of FSL while understanding the culture, identity and struggle of the Deaf community. It has only been taught by Asst. Prof. Reginaldo Cruz twice as the subject was only introduced last academic year.

The said elective is open to all UP Diliman students regardless of degree program. It also has no prerequisites, corequisites, required year standing or number of units taken. 

Prof. Cruz teaches the alphabet in Filipino Sign Language to his Anthro 198 students. Photo by Eliseo Rioja

By learning how to sign, Gab sees deafness not as a loss but as another way to experience the world and interact with others.

“It’s kind of sad kasi [the subject] reminds me na mabibingi din ako at some point, but I’m still happy na I still have a way at madadagdagan ‘yung ways ko para makipag-communicate sa iba,” Gab said.

Before his condition worsened, Gabriel finished his Associate of Arts degree, majoring in keyboard. Although he was advised by his doctor to shift to a different program, he chose to pursue another degree in music composition out of his passion for the craft.

Enrolling in Anthro 198 is Gab’s first attempt at educating himself about FSL. For him, learning sign language benefits not only himself but society in general.

“When you say a society, it includes a lot of people with different backgrounds, different capabilities,” he said. “You have to know their needs by communicating to them.”

Prof. Cruz, who also crafted the said course, affirmed that fostering an inclusive community is central to learning FSL and Deaf culture.

“Dapat ay maging aware tayo para kung saka-sakali, tayo sana ay maging kasama [at] kaagapay. The Deaf can, pero kailangan ng tulong,” he said.

In the hopes of making sign language instruction more accessible, student councils across the UP system approved a resolution in February 2022, advocating for the creation of a GE course that will focus on teaching FSL. 

READ: UP student councils push for sign language GE class

The resolution cited Republic Act 11106, which mandates public institutions, including UP, to offer “FSL as an elective subject in the regular or mainstream curriculum.”

Some universities in the country are already offering FSL programs, including the De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde, which has a dedicated School of Deaf Education and Applied Studies.

Apart from them, however, universities and colleges providing FSL education are still hard to come by. In UP, the seasonal elective Anthro 198 is the closest students could ever get to a sign language course.

According to Prof. Cruz, the number of students enrolling in the subject made him realize the high demand for FSL. During the waitlisting period, Prof. Cruz said around 200 students were still trying to secure a slot in his already full class despite it being an elective.

He also found out that students are enlisting the class beyond academic purposes, as some actually face a present need to connect with their relatives and friends who have hearing impairments.

Prof. Cruz documents all of these things, bearing the hope that one day he can show the department or university the necessity to make it a regular course.

Overcoming communication barriers

Similarly, when Prince Castro saw “Filipino sign language” in the course title of Anthro 198, he knew immediately that he had to take it. He fought for a slot even though it meant reaching out directly to the professor through manual “prerogative” enlistment.

This dedication stems from the 22-year-old’s desire to form a deeper bond with his sister who is deaf. For the longest time, he believes that communication has been a problem between them because he only knows basic signs and usually relies on fingerspelling.

“Since hindi mo alam yung sign language parang dumadating ka na lang sa point na wag mo na lang sabihin,” he said. “‘Yung guilt nabubuo siya sa‘kin kasi parang ano kayang feeling ng hindi mo naririnig ‘yung environment mo while nakikita mo silang nag-uusap.”

For this reason, he expects and hopes that Anthro 198 will focus more on FSL instruction, saying it is a significant step in raising awareness about the challenges faced by individuals who have hearing impairments.

But as funding remains insufficient, the FSL demonstration of Anthro 198 is likely to be shortened just like last year, compromising the hope of students like Gab and Prince to overcome communication barriers.

Half of the semester was supposedly concentrated on FSL learning. However, since there was a limited budget to support it, FSL tutorials had to be crammed into just one meeting last year. 

Prof. Cruz insists on helping his students learn FSL by inviting a deaf interpreter to teach the class even though the expenses have to be covered by his own pocket.

To make do with their resources, Prof. Cruz sends out instructional materials on FSL before the scheduled tutorial session. This way, students would have learned at least some basics before meeting the interpreter who would then assess their signing.

Toward a full FSL course

To be clear, Anthro 198 is not your typical sign language class. Much of the subject deals with exploring the Deaf community through an anthropological lens where Deafness is not treated as a disability but as a sociolinguistic identity.

If there will be an FSL course, Prof. Cruz encouraged that it should be taught by Deaf interpreters or educators, saying those who live with the language know it better than others. 

He also emphasized that letting Deaf educators handle FSL courses can help address the issue of limited employment and opportunities for the Deaf community.

The Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) recorded approximately 1,784,690 individuals with hearing impairment in 2020. As a hopeful FSL learner himself, Prince sees this growing population as an indication of the need for more and better access to FSL courses.

“Nagkakaroon ng scarcity ng teachers, nagkakaroon ng shortages ng mga marunong mag-FSL. Paano natin matutugunan ‘yun? Dapat may matuto kung paano,” he said.

Anthro 198 is just a step against big and multifaceted problems, argued Prof. Cruz. But as an educator and advocate, he makes sure that it reflects his vision of a society that is holistically inclusive for individuals with hearing impairment.