Dx. Raphael ‘Rafa’ Vergel de Dios Domingo, Deaf, non-binary, pronoun: “siya” (as signed in Filipino Sign Language). This is how Dx. Domingo chose to introduce Rafa in an email interview. As the first Ph.D. recipient in the World Deaf Leadership Scholarship Program, Rafa proudly wore an LGBTIA and People of Color stole during Gallaudet University’s 2022 Graduation.
Even with a Bachelor in Applied Deaf Studies from De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde, Master of Arts in International Affairs, major in Comparative International Disability Policy from American University, and both a Master of Arts and Doctorate in Philosophy from Gallaudet University in Linguistics under the belt, Rafa can still remember how difficult school was while growing up. “I had to sit in classes without an interpreter at times and was unable to participate in group discussions or projects. My studies, such as Algebra and Filipino, were difficult to understand because I had not been taught in my former school for the deaf. My teacher had told me that some lessons were skipped because they were too tough for Deaf students like myself…English and Filipino are not my native languages. I am having difficulty with academic writing.”
Dx. Domingo believes that language and communication issues are common stumbling blocks for Deaf Filipinos in Deaf education. Currently, the Head of Deaf Heritage and Filipino Sign Language Studies Unit of Benilde’s Center for Education and Advancement of the Deaf (CEAD), Rafa’s research interests are Filipino Sign Language documentation, syntax, [and] linguistic ethnography, Deaf education, and Deaf human rights. These research interests, especially regarding Deaf human rights, are reflected in musings about very personal experiences, “As a Deaf and non-binary person growing up, I was repressed, discriminated against, and bullied. Since co-founding the Philippine Federation of the Deaf Inc. as a community leader and advocate, I have fought for my rights and the rights of Deaf Filipinos. I used to be an extremely obstinate and strong-willed person…I’ve always tried to disprove stereotypes about Deaf Filipinos.”
They say it takes a village to raise a child. In Benilde, we believe it takes a community of peers, mentors, formators, and educators to produce excellent graduates with integrity; creative and innovative, inclusive, and socially responsible. “Because I just earned a certificate program in bookkeeping from DLS-CSB in 1996, I was able to complete my bachelor’s degree in 2010. There were no degree programs offered for the Deaf during my time. I would not be where I am now if it weren’t for DLS-CSB School of Deaf Education and Applied Studies,” Dx. Domingo gratefully shares, “Actually, when I joined Student Council in 1995 as an Educational Development Department – Program for the Deaf representative, I benefited from my past experiences as a leader and advocate. With the guidance of Ms. Theresa Christine dela Torre, a former counselor, I founded Benilde’s first Deaf Festival and Deaf Action Group, a student organization. Maricar Bumanlag, a former classmate, invited me to a community meeting to establish the newly formed Philippine Federation of the Deaf because she saw my leadership potential. I was one of the founding members of the Philippine Federation of the Deaf Inc.”
That fruitful student-counselor guidance has now become a professional one as the newly minted Ph.D. graduate reports to Director Ms. Theresa Christine dela Torre, who heads CEAD. Rafa’s experiences working in the Center played a big part in his chosen field. “As a previous coordinator of the Advancing Higher Education Access for the Deaf Unit (now Deaf Heritage and Filipino Sign Language Studies Unit), provided Filipino Sign Language (FSL) interpreting services and video recording of [the] class for Deaf students enrolled in the School of Hotel, Restaurant, and Institution Management’s (SHRIM) Certificate in Culinary Arts program. Deaf students raised concerns about technical concepts used in class they did not comprehend since FSL did not have corresponding concepts. CEAD initiated a project to develop academic signs, and I discovered certain issues with the project procedure. This motivated me to further my studies in linguistics.”
Benilde graduates with deep roots in volunteerism and advocacy, such as Rafa, show everyone that academic excellence must be balanced by social consciousness. In this case, both have paved for more opportunities to excel in the field. “I was intrigued with Deaf Japanese initiatives for the creation of Japanese Sign Language classrooms and research when I attended the leadership training program for Asian and Oceanian with Disabilities in Japan last 2000. This led to my appointment as chair of the National Sign Language Committee to publish the Status Report on the Use of Sign Language in the Philippines, which was managed by the Philippine Federation of the Deaf. It inspired me to pursue self-study in sign language linguistics. Since I knew numerous sign languages, I became absorbed in linguistic studies. Later, I discovered that Filipino Sign Language is a critical language to consider in many aspects of life in the Deaf community after training in Japan.”
With all the training and achievements that Rafa has achieved both personally and professionally, one would think a spot in the Gallaudet-Nippon World Deaf Leadership Scholarship program is a given. However, this success is not only a testament to Dx. Domingo’s skills, talent, and expertise but also an inspiring story of perseverance and resilience. “I applied for the Gallaudet-Nippon World Deaf Leadership Scholarship program twice but failed both times,” Rafa modestly shares, “One thing I never forget is when Dr. Therese Bustos reminded me that the Philippine government only looked at credentials, not ability. So, I reapplied for the scholarship program one final time, thinking to myself that it was my last chance. Regardless, Gallaudet University accepted me. My Ph.D. journey was arduous because the linguistic jargons and academic American Sign Language were too much for me. I felt helpless and unsure how to seek support, but some of my classmates volunteered to help and urged me to join their study group.”
Dx. Domingo does not shy from seeking help or accepting if something is out of depth, “I thought it was great at first because I had attended a couple [of] workshops on basic linguistics training, but the standards were too high for me to keep up with. Eventually, I reapplied for that scholarship program and was pleasantly surprised to get selected. Gallaudet University provided peer tutors as one of its support systems. My Department of Linguistics tutors, for example, helped me with my academic writing. My mentor/adviser and professors also provided me with valuable support, such as consultation sessions. I didn’t want to stay idle throughout my scholarship term. The scholarship term motivated me to finish my courses on time. As a Ph.D. student, this is how I overcome my challenges.”
Dr. Therese Bustos is a Professor of Special Education at the University of the Philippines-Diliman and the former Dean of the College of Education. She is only one of the many mentors and field experts Dx. Domingo has worked in pursuit of equal rights for Deaf Filipinos specifically working on the Filipino Sign Language Bill for years until it was passed as The Filipino Sign Language Act ratified as a law in 2018.
With distinguished credentials and impressive milestones, what comes next for Rafa? “I return to De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde to pursue my research on Filipino Sign Language alongside my colleagues” was the definite answer. Dx. Domingo expands, “I know that there is still much work to be done, but I can see some progress in Deaf education and Filipino Sign Language. In terms of education, my hopes for the government are that it would enforce mandatory education for all students, regardless of socioeconomic background or handicap status. No parent should hide their children, especially Deaf youngsters. If their children are found, parents should be reprimanded. My dreams for Deaf education and Filipino Sign Language would improve the Deaf community’s quality of life. As a result, the Deaf community has become productive and self-sufficient members of society.”
Before we capped off the interview, Rafa had this to say for those interested in higher education, “My advice to Deaf Filipinos is not to be hesitant to pursue graduate education due to linguistic barriers. That is not true! I understand that language/communication issues annoy you. However, many international students who are not deaf, like me, struggle with academic writing, but they succeed because they study hard. So, you must have deserved it, nonetheless. Do you know whether any colleges in the Philippines have an English Language Center? You are classified as a foreign because there are so many international students. Unless you specifically request it, I am confident they can give support systems. They have proofreaders and tutors on hand. Take advantage of this opportunity to further your education.”