education in the Philippines

Honor graduate delivers speech with sign interpreter in honor of deaf parents

Chloe Canivel

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Honor graduate delivers speech with sign interpreter in honor of deaf parents
Holy Angel University in Pampanga held its first ever deaf-inclusive commencement exercises when Aimee Tanhueco Fernando, the daughter of two deaf parents, delivered a graduation speech with the help of a sign-language interpreter

MANILA, Philippines — School events such as graduations are typically big milestones for both students and their families, but this Kapampangan graduate celebrated more than just an acquired degree.

Last June 26, Aimee Tanhueco Fernando fulfilled two of her lifelong dreams: First, she graduated college with Latin honors; and second, she delivered a graduation speech with the help of a sign-language interpreter for her parents, who both belong to the deaf community. 

The 22-year-old, BA Communication graduate was chosen as the speaker of her batch in Holy Angel University (HAU) in Pampanga. In her talk, Fernando sought to highlight the needs of persons with disabilities (PWDs), particularly those of the deaf community, and advocate for accessible education. 

WITH FLYING COLORS. Fernando graduated Summa Cum Laude from Holy Angel University last June 26. Photo from Alma Rhenz Fernando.

As it turned out, Fernando’s speech had been in the making for six years. Ever since she was in high school, she wanted to find a way to voice out the struggles faced by her parents, who often felt excluded in school gatherings. 

“I wanted my parents to feel included in a school event—something they don’t really feel in every gathering. I wanted everyone to acknowledge and understand my parents’ and the deaf community’s struggles, understand that there’s something to be done, and we are the ones who can do something about it. They are people like us and are as capable, probably even more,” Fernando said.

Amplifying the voices of the unheard

Acquiring quality education is desired by most Filipinos. However, for the deaf community, there is an added layer as to whether this type of education is accessible to them; if it caters to their needs.

In March 2022, during the Duterte administration, the inclusive education law was passed. The law sought to provide learners with disabilities access to quality education through the creation of special learning centers. However, over a year later, there has not been further action in regards to its guidelines that are supposed to set things in motion.

In her speech, Fernando broke the silence so to speak by shedding light on this issue, telling Filipinos how they can do better in paying more attention to the needs of PWDs.

She shared words of encouragement and inspiration to her fellow graduates, who had to spend half of their college years online due to the pandemic. She then admitted that she had wanted to deliver this speech for a while, as she and her sister grew up going to school events often without the attendance of their parents. 

ADVOCATES FOR INCLUSIVITY. Fernando and her family at her graduation ceremony in Holy Angel University. Photo from Trixie N. Valdes

“If they do attend, nag-aalala kami (we worry) because we grew up assisting them everywhere they go. Hospitals, government offices, sa pag-commute (in commuting)… almost every transaction sa labas (outside). Because let’s face it—our society isn’t deaf-friendly. Not yet,” Fernando said in her speech.

Fernando said that much of the challenges her parents faced involve accessibility, and that she and her family often have to work around the limitations imposed by society.

She recalled an instance in which even a simple trip to the doctor became a hurdle for her family. “My mom had to go to the doctor on a weekday. The problem is, no one was available to be with her. So I did not go to work to assist her… so that our mom could get a check up. The same scenario is applied to everything else they need to do. If they don’t have anyone to accompany them, then nothing will push through, no matter what it is.” she told Rappler, in a mix of English and Tagalog.

These day-to-day struggles were also experienced by other members of the PWD community, even in fulfilling supposedly simple tasks such as renewing their PWD cards. 

Fernando capped her speeach on a hopeful note, proudly expressing her plan of making a difference as she goes out into the real world. 

“I aim to help rebuild society by considering the feelings and experiences of not only my parents but the marginalized and discriminated groups that have felt excluded for so long,” she said.

ALL SMILES. Fernando with friends on the day of her graduation. Photo from Erron Hernandez.

She urged her batchmates to act intentionally and to play their part in building more inclusive spaces for PWDs.

“By embracing and supporting the deaf community, we not only promote equality and social justice but also create a world that celebrates diversity and allows everyone to thrive,” she said.

A community effort

Fernando believes there are ways institutions such as schools can take part in the cause. 

“Include sign language in the curriculum. It’s really not hard and complicated… Always know if there are PWDs among attendees, so preparations can be made in having interpreters in every event like recognition, graduation, etc… Included also is needing to learn sign language. I believe that is what will help the deaf community the most,” She said in a mix of English and Tagalog.

She also hoped the government direct efforts to implement laws and ordinances that could encourage Filipinos to learn sign language. This is also how she thinks fellow Filipinos can do their part in building a more deaf-friendly country. “Simple lang talaga. Learn sign language, kahit yung basic Filipino Sign Language (FSL) lang and always use visual aids and subtitles,” She says.

(It’s really simple. Learn sign language, even just basic Filipino Sign Language (FSL) and always use visual aids and subtitles.)

Fernando now works as a marketing associate in JDN Sons, Incorporated, where she plans to continue her personal advocacy by organizing programs and spearheading campaigns dedicated to the deaf community. She is also in contact with other organizations to help promote inclusivity and provide opportunities for PWDs to thrive. —

Chloe Canivel is a Rappler volunteer from Ateneo de Manila University. She recently graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology.

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