MANILA - Forty-one-year old Ember Parpa moved her hands swiftly with precision as seven politicians sat behind her, answering a flurry of questions from journalists covering the first day of the official campaign period for the 2019 mid-term polls.
Parpa is used to this busy, fast-paced environment as she has interpreted for the deaf in embassies, job interviews and international conferences for nearly two decades.
But unlike her previous gigs, this press conference in a quaint Caloocan cafe on Feb. 12 meant more to her than just earning her keep: it was her first time to interpret for the deaf an official election-related event.
"Masaya ako kasi problema ng mga deaf 'yung access to information kapag eleksyon," Parpa told ABS-CBN News.
(I'm happy because access to information during elections has always been a problem for the deaf.)
"Hindi nila kakilala 'yung mga kandidato. Hindi nila alam 'yung mga plataporma," she said.
(They don't know who the candidates are. They do not know about the platforms.)
Parpa was hired by opposition senatorial slate Otso Diretso to translate their media event in Caloocan and then tapped a Bicolano interpreter for their proclamation rally in Naga City.
The slate is set to get other sign language interpreters in different campaign pit-stops across the country, Otso Diretso campaign manager Senator Francis Pangilinan told ABS-CBN News in a separate interview.
"Pagkakataon ito na masama sila sa mga isyu at ipakita na interesado tayong masama lahat dito sa debate," he said.
(This is an opportunity to include them (the deaf) in issues, and show that we are interested to make these debates inclusive.)
"Kailangan expert sila sa dialect nung place na pupuntahan para 'yung local language ma-interpret din," he said.
(They (interpreters) have to be an expert in speaking the dialect in the places we go to so that they can also interpret the local language.)
The opposition slate first sought the service of sign language interpreters during an informal launch of candidates in Marikina City last year, after President Rodrigo Duterte signed into law Republic Act 11106 known as "The Filipino Sign Language Act."
The law mandates the use of the Filipino Sign Language in schools, broadcast media, and workplaces.
The Commission on Elections (Comelec) also required candidates and parties to "incorporate sign language interpreters and closed captioning" in their campaigns that will be shown on television or the internet.
Candidates are also "encouraged to ensure the availability of their respective printed campaign materials in Braille," the Comelec said in a resolution released in January 2019.
The administration slate has yet to use sign language interpreters in their sorties, but individual candidates - including reelectionist Senator Aquilino "Koko" Pimentel IV - have sought the services of sign language experts for political advertisements, said Parpa who is affiliated with the Philippine National Association of Sign Language Interpreters (PINASLI).
Reelectionist Sen. Grace Poe, author of the law requiring closed captioning (subtitles) on television shows so the deaf and hearing impaired would understand, is also using a sign language translator and captions on her campaign commercials.
So is reelectionist Sen. Sonny Angara, who has also enlisted the services of a sign language interpreter for his television commercial and online campaign materials.
"Neutral kami, non-partisan kami so anybody can hire us," Parpa said.
(We are neutral and non-partisan so anybody can hire us.)
SIGN LANGUAGE INTERPRETATION AS AN INDUSTRY
Some candidates are having a hard time looking for sign language interpreters as the industry remains small, with only 50 translators affiliated with PINASLI, Parpa said.
"Right now, in demand kami kasi very few lang kami na quality interpreters," she said.
(Right now, we are in demand because there are very few quality interpreters.)
Politicians will also have to "ask the deaf community or organizations to make sure" that they are getting "quality interpreters" who get the message across accurately, she said.
"Since wala tayong course sa interpreting, nakadepende sa exposure ang skill [ng interpreters]," she said.
(Since we don't have an interpreting course, the skills of an interpreter depends on his or her exposure.)
"Kunyari sa courts, hindi naman lahat [ng interpreters] may experience sa court interpreting. Ang technical terms hindi naman ginagamit araw-araw," she said.
(For example, not all interpreters have experienced interpreting in courts. There are technical terms that are not used in daily conversations.)
The going rate for sign language interpreters is P700 to P1,000 per hour. But, said Parpa, not all sign language experts land good deals.
"Some agencies will ask the deaf to bring their own interpreters, others assume the service is for free," she said.
With the expected "boom" in the need for sign language interpretation this campaign season, Parpa hopes the government would take this opportunity to formalize the sector.
"Sana standardized 'yung pay, ma-compensate ng tama 'yung effort kasi 'yung pagod at skills hindi din kasi basta-basta 'yung skill. Nakakapagod din," she said.
(I hope the pay would be standardized, that the effort would be properly compensated because the skills needed for interpreting are not easy. It's tiresome.)
But while the formalization of the sector has yet to take place, Parpa said she would be content knowing that the deaf now have a better chance at making informed choices once they cast their votes in May.