According to a study published in 2018, there are as many as 218,495 deaf or hard of hearing Puerto Ricans in the island. Given that these numbers represent at least 8% of the adult population, the obstacles faced by the deaf community show that very little has been done for this group of people. As of this year, there are only two public schools that specialize in educating deaf students, these being Colegio San Gabriel in San Juan and Colegio Fray Pedro in Ponce. Other than learning how to sign with a tutor or with their families at home, there are no government policies to ensure that these children receive the education they have by right. It should be noted that although legislation (Ley Num. 56 de 2018) was passed to ensure that basic Puerto Rican Sign Language (PRSL) courses would be included in the public education system’s curriculum, it has not yet been implemented. Mainly, this is due to the lack of American Sign Language (ASL) or PRSL interpreters in the island.
Asides from this, many members of the deaf community face stigma and hardships every single day, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic. With the obligation of wearing masks, it has become increasingly difficult for deaf people to communicate with others. Now that the lip-reading technique is no longer available for safety reasons, it is usually up to deaf people to write down or sign what they need, at times to no avail. Situations like these span from doctor’s appointments to running regular errands like going to the supermarket, a store or simply asking for directions.
Nonetheless, many of these obstacles do not limit themselves to the outside world as they can also be present in a deaf person’s home. Although providing subtitles in videos on social media is widely practiced, deaf people must set up closed captioning on their TV’s since most shows don’t have interpreters. Even the biggest newscasts in Puerto Rico, Noticentro and Telenoticias, have no ASL or PRSL interpreters to this date.
In this time and age, learning sign language is just as important as being aware of the difficulties faced by the deaf community. If you want to learn how to sign or are curious as to how the language works, here are a few important things to keep in mind:
1. There’s a difference between PRSL and ASL
Although some people might think sign language is universal, the truth is that it varies by country or region. In this case, ASL is mainly used in the United States (Black American Sign Language, or BASL, is also used in the USA, mainly by African-Americans). Click here to learn more). As for PRSL, it is exclusive to our island. Although there are some similarities between PRSL and ASL in the way words are signed, a change in letters or movement makes all the difference.
2. Not ALL deaf Puerto Ricans know PRSL
The lack of accessibility to learn “proper” sign language throughout the years has left many deaf people, mostly adults, to use their own signs between family and others. This type of sign language, lenguaje de señas casero, varies per person. This leads us to our third important point.
3. There is no one correct way to sign a word
Although PRSL can be considered the “norm”, each deaf person can have a different sign for the same word. Much like Puerto Rican Spanish, where an object or a thing has a different name depending where you’re from, the same happens with sign language.
This does not mean that one is correct and the other is not. It again shows the diversity and beauty found in every single language. Rather than correcting the sign a deaf person would use to say “flower”, for example, ask what it means to them and adapt it if signing with them.
4. Where to start
If you’re looking for where to start learning sign language, here are a few things you can do.
Learn more about the deaf community via articles or news, be connected to the realities that they face.
Sign up for a class! Search up any interpreters or teachers that are giving classes in person or online. Here in our campus, DECEP (División de Educación Continua y Estudios Profesionales del Recinto Universitario de Mayagüez) offers a Basic and Advanced Sign Language course.
Watch videos on Youtube, find sign charts or guides for Puerto Rican Sign Language. In WIPR’s Youtube channel, they have a playlist with 50+ videos on PRSL. Be sure to check them out here.