Pilar Lima is the first elected official who is deaf in Spain. She has a very extensive professional and activist career. She has been a volunteer at the Vicente Ferrer Foundation in Anantapur and also a professor in several public and private institutions that promote the divulgation of sign language. Among many other projects, she is a co-author of the book ‘Sordo ¡y qué! (Deaf, so what!). In her first speech in the Senate, and with the assistance of an interpreter, she promised: “to work to eliminate any barriers that lead to inequality and infringe on human rights, through a participatory and transparent use of the Senate”. Pilar sees the upcoming elections on December 20th as an opportunity to achieve this change.
Guillem Lisarde Sepúlveda
You have made many headlines in the media for being the first deaf senator in Spain. How far away are the political elite groups from deaf people?
The political elite is far removed from the people of the country, but this is nothing new. They continue supporting the privileged, the multinationals, the IBEX35 companies [the Spanish Stock Exchange Index] and the bankers. We place ourselves closer to the reality of the majority of society which we are part of. We were born there and we’ll stay there. We are politics; therefore, we possess the legitimacy to represent ourselves. To show that proximity, you have take to the streets continually and stimulate the mechanisms of citizen participation.
When you were two, your family realised that you were deaf, but until you were 16 you didn’t have access to Sign Language. Is this a common situation? How was your life before you had access to Sign Language?
This is a common situation since the implementation of Integration Schools started. Deaf pupils were scattered across different schools instead of being together as we were used to [the Integration Law for disabled people aimed for normalised coexistence by mixing the classrooms with disabled and non-disabled pupils]. Taking into account that the possibility of learning Sign Language is not offered from childhood, particularly in the region of Valencia, this is increasingly becoming more common [Spain has a singular compound state with some similarities to a federal system. Spanish communities consist of regions or provinces]. Sooner or later the young deaf student will end up learning Sign Language, provided they have the opportunity. In the past I aimed to oralise as best as I could, trying to look like something that I wasn’t and trying to access information as I could. Also, with a “theatrical” attitude, I pretended to understand the rest of what was said even if I didn’t, to satisfy the hearing majority and not make them feel uncomfortable. I had to pretend that I was “normal” since I didn’t yet have that identity and the discourse about equality and the understanding of diversity. Now, yes, I say: “Don’t you understand me? Don’t worry, let’s make a mutual effort to try to understand each other”, regardless of the quality of the oralisation.
The anti-austerity movement in Spain, the 15-M movement, was one of your motivations for joining politics. How has this journey been and what obstacles have you found?
For me, the 15-M movement meant another way of seeing politics after the indignation of all those years defending our social and human rights for the group with functional diversity and failing to get an answer from the public institutions (there was a feeling that with the “old” political system we had to beg for something called social welfare and social rights). Then, a political tool called Podemos appeared, which facilitated and initiated ideas that were once dreams and today are real projects. We have to turn things around to become the leaders of the political change that will soon come.
During the time you have been a senator, what barriers have you encountered in a place that until now had only been accessible for hearing people?
The Senate is not fully adapted. It is necessary, for example, that the parliamentary interventions in the Senate or the Congress, which are broadcasted online, have a small screen with a sign language interpreter in a small screen and subtitles to make it more accessible. The presence of people with different abilities in institutions is necessary to speed up improvements in accessibility. It is also important to implant the perspective of disabilities in all legislative initiatives.
The most difficult part? Having to be fully attentive for 9 to 23 hours. You miss some of the details, because I only get visual information. However, the most rewarding thing is thinking that there is hope for change in the general elections, and the amount of things that can be done in the Senate to pass on social welfare, social rights and human rights.
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To improve the situation of deaf people, do we need more laws or more economic resources?
To improve the situation of deaf people and all the people in the country, it is necessary that the legislation that exists and favours social rights is respected; and those that do not respect common sense and human rights are repealed or modified. An example would be to amend the law that regulates the special employment centres that promote precarious employment for people with “disabilities”. Another measure would be repealing the current labour bill that is the source of the current lack of job stability.
You have said in interviews that other European countries “are much more advanced”. What could be introduced in Spain that has already been implemented in neighbour countries to achieve those advances?
If you are referring to the situation of the deaf people, even the US is more advanced than Europe. They established the first university exclusively in sign language, the Gallaudet. An educational model to follow would be the one in Finland. When we say “advanced”, this does not mean that we are behind, only that we believe that we can take parts of a model to improve; but always creating our own model according to the cultural and productivity idiosyncrasies of the country.
You have stated that one of your priorities is inclusive education. What is this and what measures could be taken now?
Among the measures to be taken – since to speak of only one measure is very difficult – I would prioritise the review and subsequent changes in the decrees that develop the law for the promotion of the autonomy and care for people in situations of dependency; this includes, for instance, the copayment that is burdening the subsistence of many families in Valencia.
Moreover, there is also a need for an inclusive education for all. For example, we should ensure early free care for all deaf children aged 0-3 years with professionals who are fully trained, and the development of the law 27/2007 which recognizes sign languages and their inclusion in education.
Nowadays, the competencies in education depend on the regional governments. It’s time to unify, on a national level, standard procedures of inclusive education from a bilingual perspective. The fact that this is not the case creates inequality between regions. This means that depending on where people live they will have access or not, and that’s a social injustice.
When you were sworn in as a senator you promised to eradicate the barriers that provoke inequality and abuse of human rights. What do we need to make our world fairer?
Among many other things, like a radical reform of the Senate and other institutions, it is important to promote anything that could mean an improvement, a restoration or a creation of new rights for the citizens, with their real participation in the decision-making. One example could be to encourage the creation of a Commission for Functional Diversity, Accessibility and Promotion of Autonomy (the inappropriately named Dependency Law). This would be necessary since [the commission] will involve different areas such as education, health services, employment, urbanism, etc. It is a way to implant our own perspective about disability, a different outlook to the world, of mobility, communicating, feeling … it will help to improve public policies.
Have worked in this article:
Author: Guillem Lisarde
Translation: Noelia Martínez & Jordi Albacete
Edition: Noelia Martínez.
Images from Podemos website