Epilepsy blocked her dream of becoming a nun. Now, she's a fighter for the deaf

Jan Yumul

Posted at Apr 20 2019 12:31 PM

Sometimes, it takes more than 'all ears' to make a difference in someone's life.

And for someone from the 'hearing' community like Teresa "Tess" Buenaventura, the longest-serving faculty member at the De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde's School of Deaf Education and Applied Studies (SDEAS), who is celebrating her 20th year with the school in 2020, it has become the way of life.

What started out as a mere pursuit to a paying profession some three decades ago, has now grown to be a tireless vocation. But Buenaventura's journey was no walk in the park. Unbeknownst to many, the feisty 57-year-old interpreter for the deaf has been living with epilepsy - a condition that may have forever crushed Buenaventura's dreams of becoming a nun, but the circumstance was no match for her tenacious spirit.

"When I was in high school, I wanted to be a nun. I felt there was a calling," Buenaventura told ABS-CBN News. 

"I wanted to be a nun and a priest also. Akala ko kasi pwede mag pare 'yung babae," she added with a laugh.

However the religious congregation she applied for reportedly rejected her when they found out she was diagnosed with epilepsy. At first, Buenaventura felt frustrated until she realized, it may have been a blessing that was showing her to another path.

Today, Buenaventura has been across various industries involving the deaf, and is an active lay volunteer, mostly interpreting for the Catholic deaf community in Pasig. She sometimes joins rallies for both the hearing and non-hearing communities. 

"I never thought of epilepsy as a barrier to my work as an interpreter or a teacher," she said. 

But she admits, there are days when things get a little challenging for her 'stress limit', such as being assigned to marathon interpretations from morning until evening, such as election-related coverages. 

Thankfully, she can still count the times she has had attacks, attributing them to cold room temperatures or when she gets a little too nervous or too excited. 

She realized this 'hearing' mission of hers when she was invited to first teach at the Southeast Asian Institute for the Deaf, which is not part of Miriam College in Quezon City. The interpreters for the deaf and deaf interpreters' landscape have changed since then, but so, too, has Buenaventura.

At DLS-CSB, the deaf community stands at about 100, and 36 students have enrolled at the school's Filipino Sign Language Learning Program or FSLLP for this term. Like the hearing community, many of them have dreams.

"Most of them have dreams to get employed. They would like to be employed in whatever course they have taken up," said Buenaventura. 

With President Duterte's passage of the Filipino Sign Language Law in November last year, Buenaventura is hopeful the big leap 
will change things for the better - towards a discrimination-free society,an empowered, independent deaf community, and recognizing non-verbal interpretation work as a profession.

"Sa Pilipinas since nagkaroon ng FSL, nagkaroon ng identity 'yung mga deaf natin. They expressed their own right to be recognized as deaf people," she said. 

That has been the goal of the Philippine National Association of Sign Language Interpreters. 

"Kung 'yung teachers may bayad, pati mga actors may bayad ganoon din sa interpreters. Kung linalamok kami ng deaf na artista sa shooting, pumipila kami, 'yung experience kung 'yon, dapat i-professionalize. Hindi dapat alalay ng deaf at paid talaga 'yung interpreter justly," said Buenaventura.

The waves of change will also have to come from within as hearing interpreters also face challenges, such as increasing vocabularies in the context of the deaf as signs, which like language, evolve over time. 

"Minsan mag sa-sign sila. Sabi ko, ano ibig sabihin niyan? Kumbaga sa mga millennials they are using new jargon. In deaf community also. So the hearing people are adjusting. We're trying to learn the new signs being introduced," she said.

Another challenge, Buenaventura said, would be health-related concerns as a senior interpreter. She urged younger generations of deaf interpreters, which are helping reinvigorate the workforce, to balance their activities to avoid having carpal tunnel and to relax and exercise their hands regularly.

The National Registry of the Department of Health estimates the deaf population in the Philippines at 17 percent or almost 100,000 per 577,345.

Getting the exact figures of deaf people in the Philippines could be complicated, Buenaventura said, as there are varying levels of deafness.

"Some people especially in the provinces are not yet aware about what to name the disability of the deaf under their care. So when people from the PSA go to their houses, sometimes they just report that there are deaf individuals in the family and most of the time they are old people or what we call as bingi," she said.

"They do not know that their deaf children or relatives whom they call as pipi belong to the category of people who are Deaf. I think the Philippine Federation of the Deaf needs to conduct a Deaf awareness seminar for people doing the census so as to help in getting more accurate data on Deaf population in our country," she added.

Another possible hurdle is having sign language as a certificate course rather than a degree, which DSL-CSB is eyeing to change in the near future by introducing the Philippines' first-ever degree course at its SDEAS.

Looking back at her rejection, Buenaventura said she has no regrets and is happier with how things turned out. 

"Sa buhay pala natin , pinaka-importante, may pananampalataya ka. It's not the academic admissions, travel, or achievements. The important thing is you have faith in God."