I came across her story when I was assigned to interview her for The Philippine Star, the Manila broadsheet I write for. The paper came out with a compilation of 28 stories of hope, courage and generosity for its 28th anniversary.
I was privileged to write Arce’s story and I was in awe of her courage to live her life despite being deaf.
My amazement stems mostly from the fact that in the Philippines, conditions are not easy for people with disabilities, whatever disability you may have.
I know because a friend of mine, who has been disabled for more than 20 years now, has been complaining of the lack of wheelchair ramps in the country, even though this should be mandatory.
Public elevated trains have elevators but are often out of service. And this isn’t the worst of their woes, because they have to grapple every day with rampant discrimination against people with disabilities.
Arce herself has experienced this.
Growing up, she first studied in a school that mainstreamed Deaf and hearing students.
However, the class atmosphere proved difficult for her because there was some sort of discrimination, she says.
‘The classroom atmosphere for me was quite difficult, not because most of my classmates were hearing, but because we didn’t know how to communicate with each other, and there was some sort of discrimination. My hearing classmates would opt not to include me in class projects and activities even though I want to participate. I felt stuck and disappointed,’ she laments.
She would later find her place in a local university, the De La Salle-College of St. Benilde School of Deaf Education and Applied Studies.
Here, she found an environment where teachers and other members of the community welcomed her.
‘I felt loved and cared for and I felt that the school was like a family. I learned the true meaning of a Deaf person and that the word Deaf is spelled with a capital D which means that I am not only a Deaf person but I am someone who is part of the Deaf community, partaking in its unique language and culture,’ Arce says.
After university, Arce realized she wanted to pursue a master’s degree and to be equipped with more knowledge to help the Filipino Deaf community.
‘I realized the Filipino Deaf community’s need to improve their lives and empower them, which led me to pursue a master’s degree. It had always been my dream to study at Gallaudet University, Washington, DC, an academic institution known for its prestige as an institution committed toward excellence in Deaf education. It is also the first and only Deaf University in the world where I experienced a truly signing environment,’ Arce says.
She became the first Filipino to be awarded the World Deaf Leadership Scholarship at the Gallaudet University in Washington. She is back in the country after obtaining her master’s degree last May.
Her goal now is to teach and help her fellow Deaf become empowered individuals.
‘I hope to not only help them go through college, but also make them good researchers, and active advocates in their respective communities. In my advocacy, I’m looking at opportunities to bring the needs of the Deaf into the consciousness of society, especially the hearing people. I aim to help integrate the Deaf and the hearing together in unity, bridge the communication gap, increase awareness of the Deaf culture, and raise the respect for the natural sign language of the Filipino Deaf – the Filipino Sign Language,’ she says.
This is her way of giving back in return for having herself been given the opportunity to pursue her dreams, and as a way of showing to the world that Deaf people can do just about anything, except hear.
Hats off to this courageous young woman. May she be a stark reminder that in a country like the Philippines, where institutions sometimes fail their citizens, and where the marginalized are often deprived gainful opportunities, there are courageous ones who do not give up.