An Attempt Towards a Philippine Deaf History During the Spanish and American Colonial Periods

The Philippine Deaf Resource Center (PDRC) has become a rich reservoir of information about the pedagogical and social conditions of the deaf community but only recently has it invested its research interests to the history of the deaf.

Current archival research is being done on primary sources from the Spanish colonial period to the American occupation of the Philippine islands and the PDRC is expected to release this after a linguistic treatment of the archival data.

A historical research made public by the PDRC tackling deaf history but not necessarily deaf conditions of the past was the work of Rafaelito M. Abat and Doctor Liza B. Martinez entitled The History of Sign Language in the Philippines: Piecing Together the Puzzle.[1] This short history focused on the early use of sign language in the education of the early deaf Filipinos and the possible origins of this sign language.

Since the PDRC is well-known for advocating the recognition of what it claims as an existing indigenous sign language among the deaf communities in the Philippine islands and therefore the use of this sign language, the history presented by Abat and Martinez was utilized to support this claim. It is noticeable from their treatment of the data gathered from these archival sources that they seek to find continuity from the earliest used sign languages in the Philippine islands to the Filipino Sign Language (FSL) which the group and other deaf leaders today advocate[2].

Such treatment however of these archival sources can be narrowing and misleading. It is narrowing because the framework used by the two linguists may take other possible factors for granted as they focus only on the psychological and the pedagogical history of the deaf community of the Philippine islands and not the real conditions of these marginalized people.

For example, reflective of the cumulative angst and discomfort of deaf leaders against American Sign Language (ASL), the sign language which is most recognized by the Filipino deaf community as having the greatest influence to the currently used sign language of deaf Filipinos, the history presented by Abat and Martinez delved less on the history of sign language during the American colonial period and simply said that the American influence was all but domineering and thus repressive.[3]

I therefore shall present another framework of analysis, which though inspired by the work of the two linguists mentioned above, shall open up a wider view of the Philippine deaf history during the colonial experience of the Philippines. This framework which I shall now introduce, I hope shall give way to an explanation that would allow more factors to permeate a more encompassing discussion about all things involving the unheard colonial experiences of deaf Filipinos.

A Dearth of Primary Sources on Deaf History

There exists a dearth of primary sources on the historical conditions of the deaf in the Philippine islands and Abat and Martinez, aside from doing their history to serve the PDRC’s advocacy, probably came up with their history of sign language simply because it is what the few primary sources are telling us: early deaf education through the use of signs.

The PDRC released some of its archival findings on deaf history during the Spanish Colonial period in Abat and Martinez’s history of sign language. There were three sources presented in the history, the oldest of which dated 1604 and one was undated. The oldest account, which I was able to review myself, was an account from Pedro Chirino’s Relacion de las Islas Filipinas.

The account told the story of the catechism and baptism of two mutes in Dulac, Leyte by the Catalan Jesuit Father Ramon Prat. As expected, Abat and Martinez’s history focused on the use of sign language in the catechism of the deaf and from there connected the account to the improbability of Spanish sign language influence, the Jesuit education’s trend towards learning the languages of the natives instead of the other way around, and the contemporary observation that deaf people create deaf communities by themselves.[4] This is where Abat started his speculations to prove the indigenousness of the sign language used in the account and the probable existence of a Filipino signing community in Dulac, Leyte.[5]

In their work, Abat and Martinez cited only the lines where the use of signs, and not necessarily sign languages, was mentioned. A complete view of the account however, helps us understand the other aspects of deaf culture and deaf experience during this period, information which does neither revolve alone to the pedagogical roots of sign language nor the continuity of an indigenous Filipino Sign Language. I will be posting the entire account on another blog entry.

Primary sources during the American colonial period are not also that accessible. However, it is easier compile sources of this period because as compared with the Spanish colonial period, the American colonial period has more information to offer on the subject, this is due to the fact that American education was well managed and concern for the “rehabilitation” of the deaf and other handicapped individuals was institutionalized during this period of Philippine history.

A good reference in terms of the chronological order of developments on deaf and sign language education in the Philippines particularly the historical account of the establishment and the resilience of The School for the Deaf and Blind and Special Education in the Philippines was contained in Appendix C and D of Erlinda F. Camara’s Rehabilitation Policy in the Philippines: An Analysis of Major Institutions for the Disabled which was published in 1985.[6] However, Camara was not able to provide the source of her chronologies thus cannot be verified. Camara’s work could only be used as guide or counter-reference to the original primary sources founded.

The original primary sources of the American period that contain references of deaf conditions in Philippine history are sections from John Foreman’s The Philippine Islands: A Political, Geographical, Ethnographical, Social, and Commercial History of the Philippine Archipelago published in 1906 and William Cameron Forbes’ The Philippine Islands published in 1928.

Even if we search for probable primary sources outside the country containing links of sign language use in Europe and Spain for example, it is the teacher using sign language who is being discussed by these sources. This was mentioned by Abat and Martinez in their paper.[7] If we are to expand our search of primary sources towards the American colonial period, only government inspired documents can be found and all of these focused on the education of the deaf particularly the setting up of schools.

Given this existing dearth of primary sources that may assist us in digging up deaf history during the colonial period, how can we therefore, enlarge our perspective of looking at these sources in a way that other factors other than deaf education through the use of sign language may be discussed?

A Multi-central Framework of Studying Filipino Deaf History

A deeper understanding of the past experiences of the Filipino deaf community during the Colonial Period takes into consideration the larger colonial context itself. Merely focusing on the search for the roots and the continuity of an indigenous sign language may only lead to pure speculation, which Abat did abundantly.[8] Information from such history only serves the purpose of advocacy groups rather than really arriving at a descriptive account of real deaf experiences.

Thus, what I shall propose is a framework that allows any researcher to focus on any point of interest or any agent and player in deaf history as these are interconnected with other themes and personalities. It is therefore a multi-central framework which I am proposing, a framework which breaks free from the Filipino Sign Language narrative of the Philippine Deaf Resource Center while at the same time a framework which allows one to understand fully each possible center of discussion.

Within the Philippine context we find two very different colonial experiences, that of the Spanish and the Americans. But both experiences were “colonial” because of the superimposition of a pre-arranged colonial organization into the indigenous consciousness of the Filipinos. These two superimposed colonial organizations are however varying. If we are to analyze the institutions established by the Americans and the Spaniards in the Philippines we see two very different colonial regimes.

When we try to look at deaf history, it is the educational institutions established by both colonial regimes which are deserving of our comparison. We must remember that both educational institutions were still part of the larger colonial context and therefore were established to serve the purposes of colonialism. In a sense much of the education brought by these colonial regimes to the Philippines was colonial education aimed at better pacifying the peoples of the colonies. On this level, we could already discern deaf history not only by discussing the history of sign language but also the relationship of deaf education that involves teacher-student relationships, to the general colonial pursuits. Even just on this level, we could already discern another venue for discussion of deaf history other than the history of sign language in the Philippines.

Having this in mind, we can now look at the few available primary sources on the deaf experiences of the colonial period with a different take of point. In the discussion below, using the above mentioned strategy, we are to ask the question: were the deaf experiences during the Spanish and American colonial periods a deviation from the general colonial experience of the period?

A Re-Interpretation of Chirino’s Account

The Jesuits on the account of Chirino possess a common view of the deaf and their deafness, and perhaps even with other disabilities. Chirino, being a Jesuit himself, viewed the mutes as having a “natural barbarism” that which is as compared to the average Filipino who acquires his barbarism has “lack of the usual qualifications” for human instruction.[9] The “usual” or the basis for what is normal for the Jesuits therefore, are the things related to the “hearing” majority. Chirino provided a scriptural basis for such in Romans 10:7 which say: “Faith then cometh by hearing; and hearing by the word of Christ.”[10] This shows that the Jesuit pursuits for the education of the deaf cannot be equal with the instruction provided to the human hearing. With this fact alone, the education of the deaf shall be special if ever such should be pursued by the Spanish Jesuit educators. But, were there any proofs of a Spanish established school for the deaf in the Philippines before the advent of the American colonizers? We can safely say that there exists no formal education for the deaf Filipinos during the Spanish period. Sign language influences from Spain as argued by Abat and Martinez was unlikely.[11] The fact that there existed no Spanish formal school nor educational program designed to assist the deaf that the Americans continued as they started embarking into benevolent assimilation prove that the Dulac account was a very separate experience from the Spanish educational pursuits.

We may as well say that because catechism and baptism are mainly passports towards tribute paying, most Spaniards view the deaf as useless in the labor population being part of the illiterates dependent on the literate population and therefore are not deserving of a massive education even if their number is significantly many.[12] Furthermore, the kindness and sincerity observed from that of a friar like Father Prat and the religiosity of the deaf in the account are really exceptional accounts further showing that the catechism of the deaf in Dulac, Leyte was a deviation from the general Spanish colonial educational pursuits.[13] And we may add that if the Spanish “hearing” education itself is inadequate in terms of the lack of schools and teachers, how much more so with the “deaf” education of this colonial period.[14]

In looking at Chirino’s account in a multi-central framework, we must further look at the teachers, the deaf themselves, and the general philosophy of the deaf education. Doing so helps us look at the other aspects of deaf history present in Chirino’s work.

Deaf History during the American Colonial Period from Forbes and Foreman

John Foreman did neither mention any information on the history or the experiences of the deaf during the Spanish colonial period nor that of the American advent. This is easily understood because if Camara’s chronology is indeed correct it was only in 1907 when the first school for the deaf and blind was established.[15] John Foreman’s The Philippine Islands: A Political, Geographical, Ethnographical, Social, and Commercial History of the Philippine Archipelago was published in 1906, one year earlier from the establishment of the Insular School for the Deaf and the Blind. Foreman’s work therefore, discussed only a survey of American pursuits for the education of the Filipinos in the early 1900s during the first American efforts in the pacification of the Philippines; the efforts for the handicapped individuals were not yet included during this time. Nevertheless, Foreman’s work contains some descriptions of other forms of disability and his account is still worth researching.

On the other hand, William Cameron Forbes’ work, which was published years after the establishment of the Insular School for the Deaf and the Blind, indeed contain a short account on these early American efforts for the instruction of the deaf. Below is the complete account.

“During the year 1907-08 the Bureau of Education opened in Manila a school for defectives, providing at first for a number of deaf children, and later for the blind. As the parents of these children were usually unable to pay the expense of maintenance away from home, the government made provision to subsist and clothe them, so that they were given a chance to develop into self-reliant, and self-supporting members of society. Basketry, hat-making, and other handicrafts were taught, as well as academic subjects, the blind using the Braille system of reading.

“By 1914 graduates of the school were engaged in remunerative employment as tailors, shoemakers, and seamstress, and others were learning the printing trades. All the girls are taught the care of a home, plain sewing, dressmaking, and lace-making. The enrolment increased from forty-six pupils in 1913 to one hundred and three in 1925. In 1921 the government constructed for this admirable and popular institution a special building upon an adequate site in a suburb of Manila.”[16]

A cross-reference analysis between Forbes’ work and the chronology provided by Camara shows that even if credit on the establishment of the Insular School for the Deaf and the Blind was initiated by the Bureau of Education, that means the government itself as Forbes mentioned, it was a certain Miss Delight Rice who taught an initial three deaf students in the newly establish school in 1907.[17] It is also true, that the school was originally established for the deaf and later on the blinds were admitted.[18] Forbes was also right when he said that the government subsidized the education of these few handicapped individuals. It was roughly in 1913 when Frank K. Crone, the Director of Education, recommended that all enrolees be free of charge generously supported by the government.[19]

The school was later on renamed the School for the Deaf and the Blind and its curriculum was both academic and industrial.[20] In Forbes’ account, industrial education was viewed by the Americans as the most appropriate education for the Filipino people given their conditions.[21] According to Forbes, industrial instruction can be further divided into four areas: household industries, mechanical trades, housekeeping, and agriculture.[22] From Forbes’ description of the nature of industrial education provided by the Americans to the deaf individuals, household industries and housekeeping were the skills taught to the deaf in the school established.

The instruction of the deaf therefore was not at all a separate experience from the general colonial context of the Philippine Islands during the American colonial period as it was in the Spanish colonial period. In fact as the School for the Deaf and the Blind progressed in scope, the American government’s interest towards the welfare of the deaf grew.[23] This is not to say that the deaf were not a minority group during the American colonial period. In fact, we could say that it was during this colonial period in the Philippines that discrimination may as well have started because it was the time that the deaf were integrated into the rest of Philippine society. It was the first time that they were recognized but as a minority. A review of the Philippine Commission reports based on my experience was daunting and yet surprising. Even during the late 1920s, the Philippine Commission reports did not indicate any progress on the education of the deaf. I was not able therefore to verify any information within Camara’s chronology other than that verifiable through Forbes’ work.

If there is any reason for the American colonial government to invest for the education of the deaf we could say that this is a minute reason. But it is also clear that the Americans desire all Filipinos, even the disabled to contribute in the establishment of American industrial economies in the Philippines. The deaf and the other handicapped were still a contributory labor force no matter how disability limits what they can do.

Conclusion

This is but a simple attempt towards a historical gap in the colonial histories of the Philippine islands. Despite the dearth of primary sources on this subject it is not impossible to bring forth the pieces of puzzle together to draw a clearer history of the Filipino deaf experiences during the Spanish and the American colonial periods. In European countries like Britain and Germany an attempt to employ “oral history” procedures to gather eye-witness accounts from deaf individuals through sign language discussions caught on video tape was being initiated in recent years to document deaf experiences of playing football and deaf experiences during the Nazi Holocaust respectively.[24] Perhaps, an attempt for such in the Philippine context can be done in the near future.


[1] This work was discussed and released during the Philippine Linguistics Congress of the Department of Linguistics of the University of the Philippines on 25-27 January 2006. It was based on an eight page paper presenting some primary sources which the Philippine Deaf Resource Center found from its archival diggings.

[2] Rafaelito M. Abat and Liza B. Martinez, “The History of Sign Language in the Philippines: Piecing Together the Puzzle,” Philippine Linguistics Congress, Department of Linguistics, University of the Philippines, 25-27 January 2006, 4.

[3] Ibid., 1, 4.

[4] Ibid., 5-6.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Erlinda F. Camara, Rehabilitation Policy in the Philippines: An Analysis of Major Institutions for the Disabled, (Manila: Rex Book Store, 1985:201-18).

[7] Rafaelito M. Abat and Liza B. Martinez, “The History of Sign Language in the Philippines: Piecing Together the Puzzle,” (Philippine Linguistics Congress, Department of Linguistics, University of the Philippines. 25-27 January 2006:6).

[8] Ibid., 5.

[9] Pedro Chirino, S.J. 1604, Relacion de las Islas Filipinas. In: The Philippine Islands 1493-1898. (J.A. Robertson and E.H.Blair (eds.), 1903. vol. 13:102-4).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Rafaelito M. Abat and Liza B. Martinez, “The History of Sign Language in the Philippines: Piecing Together the Puzzle,” (Philippine Linguistics Congress, Department of Linguistics, University of the Philippines. 25-27 January 2006:5-6).

[12] John Foreman. The Philippine Islands: A Political, Geographical, Ethnographical, Social, and Commercial History of the Philippine Archipelago. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906:192-193.

[13] Pedro Chirino, S.J. 1604, Relacion de las Islas Filipinas. In: The Philippine Islands 1493-1898. (J.A. Robertson and E.H.Blair (eds.), 1903. vol. 13:103-104.

[14] John Foreman. The Philippine Islands: A Political, Geographical, Ethnographical, Social, and Commercial History of the Philippine Archipelago. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906:192-193.

[15] Erlinda F. Camara. Rehabilitation Policy in the Philippines: An Analysis of Major Institutions for the Disabled. (Manila: Rex Book Store, 1985:201).

[16] William Cameron Forbes. The Philippine Islands. Boston: Houghton Muffin, 1928:186.

[17] Erlinda F. Camara. Rehabilitation Policy in the Philippines: An Analysis of Major Institutions for the Disabled. (Manila: Rex Book Store, 1985:201).

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] William Cameron Forbes. The Philippine Islands. Boston: Houghton Muffin, 1928:181.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Erlinda F. Camara. Rehabilitation Policy in the Philippines: An Analysis of Major Institutions for the Disabled. (Manila: Rex Book Store, 1985:202-211).

[24] See Martin Atherton, Dave Russell and Graham Turner’s Looking to the Past: The Role of Oral History Research in Recording the Visual History of Britain’s Deaf Community from Oral History, Volume 29, No. 2, pp. 35-37 and Donna F. Ryan’s Deaf People in Hitler’s Europe: Conducting Oral History Interviews with Deaf Holocaust Survivors from The Public Historian, Volume 27, No. 2, pp. 43-52.

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