In February 1867, six girls and six boys attended the Colegio de San Gregorio in Mexico City for the first time to start a school year that would make history in the nation. Those dozen students represented the first generation of the School for the Deaf, the first of its kind in the country.
The minors were part of a population whose particular conditions had not been considered in the educational projects. The idea of this innovative school had been raised by the French Eduardo Huet, who had already developed similar projects in Paris and Rio de Janeiro considering the use of signs as a pedagogical route.
The proposal fell on fertile ground because, six years ago, Benito Juárez and his Minister of Justice, Ignacio Ramírez, had enacted a law that sought to establish the Institution of Public Schools for the deaf. The second stroke of fortune occurred, already during the Second Mexican Empire, with the interest shown by Empress Carlota and the subsequent approval of the deaf teacher’s initiative.
November 28 is the National Day of the Deaf. On November 28, 1867, the National School for the Deaf was founded by decree of President Benito Juárez, in the former Convent of Corpus Christi, which is why the community meets in the Chamber of Juarez on that date. pic.twitter.com/qF0jnDIxyD
— CoPeSoR (@CoPeSoR) November 27, 2018
After the fall of Maximiliano, the Juarista government took that Municipal School for the Deaf to another level, granting it recognition throughout the country and turning it into the National School for the Deaf. This was a momentous step for communities with hearing disabilities and for the recognition of their languages.
The right to communicate
Although communication by signs is as old as humanity, the languages based on this form of expression have had to take an intricate and very long path to be admitted as a right in education and in all areas of social and cultural participation. , as well as to reinforce the linguistic identity of communities of deaf people and of all users of these sign systems.
In light of time, important efforts should be highlighted, from the Reduction of letters and Art to teach the mute to speakconsidered the first modern treatise on phonetics and speech therapy, which in 1620 proposed the use of alphabetic signs as a teaching method for the deaf, until the much more recent Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, which recognizes and promotes the use of sign languages, with the same status as spoken languages.
According to the World Federation of the Deaf, it is estimated that there are more than 70 million deaf people worldwide and at least 300 different sign languages have been identified.
In Mexico, according to the INEGI 2020 census, there are more than five million people who have hearing limitations. The Mexican Sign Language is, by far, the most widely used in our country; official figures state that it is used by some 250,000 people. However, other sign systems are also identified in local environments, such as the Yucatecan Mayan Language, in the southeast, and at least another one that is used in the Purépecha community of Michoacán.
– Karla Iberia Sánchez (@karlaiberia) March 15, 2019
Among the most recent advances in favor of sign language users in our country, in November 2021, the Mexican Congress approved a reform to the General Law for the Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities which establishes that the Ministry of Health will promote the training and incorporation of medical personnel trained in the Mexican Sign Language and that the Ministry of Public Education will promote an education model that includes Spanish, the Mexican Sign Language and indigenous languages, according to the cultural context.
Federico Fleischmann, founder of the civil association Acceso Libre, affirms in the Presentation of the Dictionary of Mexican Sign Language hands with voicethat deaf people have developed their own language as a means of socialization and a compensatory mechanism, although this “does not facilitate their relationship with the rest of the community, especially with listeners who do not know that language”.
Linguistic identity and cultural diversity
Faced with all these situations and challenges, in 2017 the United Nations Organization established September 23 as the International Day of Sign Languages, with the purpose of highlighting “a unique opportunity to support and protect the linguistic identity and cultural diversity of all deaf people and other users of sign language”.
Those who think that sign languages are reduced to a mere translation of what others speak are deeply mistaken. In the universe of communication and expression systems, this one, that of signs, has a life of its own, unique grace and a force so evident that it is unnecessary to describe it.
It is a form of expression that transcends the hands to involve diverse body gestures and movements, which sharpens the gaze and puts attention to the surface, which forces us to look into the eyes and spell the mouth.
It is the challenge of “seeing voices”, as Oliver Sacks would say, the British neurologist, psychiatrist, humanist and writer who delved into the world of the deaf and described their sign language as something full of plasticity and beauty, “capable of creating the magic of poetry and of enveloping people in a dream world full of fantastic images. It is used to confess, for philosophy, to discuss or make love. It is full of symbolic force… The soul that escapes through their fingers is life itself for them”.
Sign language is not a mere interpretation of what is spoken, but a unique and alternative language, as complex, as rich and as effective for thought and the transmission of culture as any other language.
The six boys and six girls who attended the Colegio de San Gregorio last century have multiplied almost exponentially. However, although much progress has been made in these objectives, the historical debt with the populations that use these codes has not been paid. The path for the recognition of their identity and for the integration of their languages is still long and somewhat winding.