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2023-11-15 at 15h11

Talking Hands: Today is Portuguese Sign Language Day

Luís Oriola and Sofia Figueiredo are interpreters for the National Institute for Rehabilitation and translate the Government’s main statements into sign language

It has been stated in the Constitution since 1997, determining that it is the State’s task to "protect and enhance Portuguese sign language as a cultural expression and instrument for access to education and equal opportunities". Today, we celebrate Portuguese Sign Language Day, a language of visual expression through gestures that convey all the equivalent meanings to the Portuguese language. In Portugal, there are 30 thousand people who communicate using Portuguese Sign Language, but it is estimated that the community that uses this language is much greater. 

Sign language is not universal, as each country has its own vocabulary, grammar and structure, as well as accents and regional expressions.

Portuguese Sign Language was born in the 19th century based on the experience of Per Aron Borg, who worked with the deaf in Sweden. By request of King João VI, he offered technical advisory to Portugal on this matter and took part in the creation in 1823 of the first school for the deaf in the country. For this reason, although the Portuguese and Swedish sign language’s vocabular is different, the alphabet reveals their common origin.

Sofia Figueiredo and Luís Oriola are senior staff at the National Institute for Rehabilitation, under the Ministry of Labour, Solidarity, and Social Security. They became familiar faces with the Portuguese people especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, a time that brought with it specific challenges given the need to communicate important information on public health and safety quickly and effectively. 

Portuguese sign language was therefore a crucial tool to ensure the information reached everyone. With specific challenges, such as introducing new words, for instance coronavirus in sign language. 

Whereas a lot of ground has been made in acknowledging Portuguese sign language, there is still a lot to be done. "The greatest challenges are [people] not being aware of and not truly understanding the importance of Portuguese sign language and a Portuguese sign language interpreter", Sofia Figueiredo claims, stressing that deaf people need to have access to the messages not in specific contexts, rather in their daily life. 

Luís Oriola shares this idea: "There are a series of services and skills that were implemented to provide more and better accessibility for deaf people, yet there are still many contexts where that accessibility does not exist, we must continue this endeavour".