Abstract

This paper presents the results from a qualitative study on the history of the Deaf social movement in Brazil and the collective actions of its members to achieve legal recognition of Libras - the Brazilian Sign Language. The study was undertaken between 2009 and 2013 in several Brazilian capitals. We interviewed Deaf and hearing activists, Sign language specialists, Deaf education researchers, and members of the government. We also analysed written and audio-visual documents from personal collections and public and private institutions. These discoveries made it possible to trace the transformation in the Deaf community from its emergence in the context of the disabled social movements of the 1980s to the far more public demonstrations in the 1990s. The study also looks at the progressive empowerment of the movement's members, and their collectively defined ideologies, that were designed to promote and justify their political agenda. The paper also attempts to clarify the movement's role in the approval of the Libras Federal Law 10.436 of April 2002, regulated by decree 5.626 in December 2005, and discusses its importance in guaranteeing government bilingual educational policies for Deaf students.


On 3 April 2002, a group of over one hundred Deaf activists sat in in the Federal Senate halls in Brasília, the Brazilian capital, to monitor the vote on a bill to recognize Libras, the Brazilian Sign Language, as a legal form of communication and expression for the Deaf community in Brazil. In this place, so symbolic for Brazilian democracy, the Deaf campaigners closely watched the Libras interpretation of the debates between members of parliament and witnessed the outcome of a legislative process that had started on 13 June 1996, when it had first been presented to the House. For almost six years, the Deaf social movement had held demonstrations, drawn up petitions, and lobbied members of parliament, among other collective actions to try to ensure the legislation would be passed (Brito, 2013; Monteiro, 2006; Thoma and Klein, 2010).

The point of departure for a qualitative study using the methodological guidelines of Denzin and Lincoln (2006) and Poupart et al. (2008) was to attempt to unravel the formation of this social movement and try to understand the trajectory that led to this momentous day in the history of the Brazilian Deaf. The fieldwork was undertaken in the cities of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Brasília between 2009 and 2013, and included documentary research in numerous public and private archives, as well as semi-structured interviews with eight activists (five of whom are Deaf), four Academics, and three civil servants. The data analysis used Melucci's social movement theory (Melucci, 1994, 1996, 2001) and studies on Disability social movements, Deafness, Deaf history, Sign language, and Deaf education in Brazil (Assis Silva, 2012; Berenz, 1998, 2003; Crespo, 2009; Ferreira Brito, 2003; Jankowski, 1997; Klein, 2005; Lane, 1997; Lanna Júnior, 2010; Monteiro, 2006; Ramos, 2004; Souza, 1998; Thoma and Klein, 2010).

The Origins of the Deaf Social Movement in Brazil

In Brazil, the Deaf social movement was a product of the Disability social movement. At the end of the 1970s and in the early 1980s, the military dictatorship was on the verge of dissolution, and there was a sense of optimism due to greater political openness and re-democratization. This promising environment witnessed the reactivation and expansion of political movements for a range of social minorities: labourers, slum dwellers, women, black people and homosexuals. These groups formed coalitions to find new forms of collective action to fight for social rights (Alvarez et al., 2000; Sader, 1988).

Encouraged by this favourable environment, several groups of people with disabilities came together and created the first organizations to fight for their political rights. These groups of campaigners—the majority of whom were physically disabled, but also included the Blind, Deaf, and people with degenerative diseases—began to bond and exchange knowledge and experience, negotiate aims and form action plans. This interaction created a network of relationships, where participants nurtured a collective identity that was an important factor for group cohesion and the definition of collective action guidelines and circumstances. This led to the formation of a social movement, understood here as a system of social relations that connects and legitimizes a multiplicity of social actors, as defined by Melucci (1996, 2001).

Like many other new social movements that appeared at the time, the Disability social movement had a predominantly political dimension and, simultaneously, a remarkable cultural dimension. From its very beginning, it focused on creating and maintaining mechanisms for sharing new concepts of disability and of the disabled person between members and wider society, upholding their demands for a more autonomous life, and being able to play more important roles in their local community once the structural barriers to social integration were removed. These new ideas arrived in Brazil through materials produced and distributed by the United Nations (UN), even more so after it declared the year 1981 as the International Year of Disabled Persons (IYDP), with the motto of 'full participation and equality' (Crespo, 2009; Lanna Júnior, 2010; Nascimento, 2001).

In addition to offering disabled people a new identity and an alternative perspective on disability (disability understood as a social phenomenon that is more than just a medical condition or something to be pitied), the IYDP gave something else that was priceless: unprecedented social visibility. For the first time ever, these people were heard and portrayed by national media as autonomous citizens who were able to fight for their rights, rather than just as people marked by tragedy, worthy only of pity and charity in order to survive (Crespo, 2009; Nascimento, 2001).

In the early 1980s, the material and symbolic resources made available by the IYDP enabled the Disability movement to hold several meetings between activists from different groups from all over the country. For many Deaf campaigners, whose previous activities had been restricted to local deaf associations more focused on leisure and mutual support than on political ends, participation in IYDP events equated to a political education, a growing awareness of the social significance of disability, and a way of making demands on society and the State (Brito, 2013; Lanna Júnior, 2010).

Until 1983, there had still been joint plans between different disability movement leaders to form a single unified social movement, represented by one national federation. However, these proposals did not go ahead due to internal differences and, after 1984, separate national federations for different types of disabilities began to form and develop their own political agendas, including the Brazilian Blind Federation and the National Organization for the Physically Disabled (Jannuzzi, 2004). This change in the direction of the movement was especially challenging for Deaf activists, who at the time did not have the same degree of organization, mobilization of resources, or support. However, descriptions by Deaf leaders at the time show that despite the difficulties they faced, they were determined to carry on their political struggle (Brito, 2013).

At this time, the centre of the Deaf campaign was the city of Rio de Janeiro as it had an active deaf community with strong links to the Instituto Nacional de Educação dos Surdos (Ines) [the National Deaf Education Institute]; this is the oldest deaf state school in Brazil, founded in the mid-19th century. Many of the Deaf activists in the Disability social movement were living in Rio de Janeiro and they slowly formed social networks that brought them and their individual, group and organizational actions together. The process of interaction between these different social actors in constructing a collective ideology, resulted socio-historically in the emergence and maintenance of a system of action between 1980 and 2000, which, from the theoretical perspective of Melucci (1996, 2001), could be described as a Brazilian Deaf social movement.

In 1984, this still incipient social movement staged an unprecedented march, holding demonstrations in front of the TV Educativa [Educational TV] building and the Rio de Janeiro City Council, demanding compliance with the Federal Law 6.606 of December 1978, which had stipulated that at least one foreign film a week be subtitled in Portuguese on national television. In the midst of these early struggles, some Deaf leaders decided to establish a national federation headed by deaf people to represent and articulate the different organizations and institutions of and for the deaf, similar to those national federations created by activists with other disabilities. This Federation was to be responsible for bringing together resources from individual activists and supporters and social organizations and institutions, to mobilize them for collective actions by the Deaf social movement. At the same time, it would also act to represent the movement's demands and interests within society and the State (Assis Silva, 2012; Brito, 2013; Souza, 1998).

Rather than create an entirely new organization, Deaf campaigners decided to take power in the Federação Nacional de Educação e Integração do Deficiente Auditivo (Feneida) [the National Federation for the Education and Integration of the Hearing Impaired], which was a federation of national organizations for the deaf established in 1977 in Rio de Janeiro, but that, despite having deaf people on its board, had only had hearing directors (Monteiro, 2006; Ramos, 2004). According to Ana Regina Souza e Campello, one of the Deaf leaders who made her name in the 1980s, Feneida "had just one goal: to make the deaf speak, to give schools advice on buying hearing aids, like microphones installed in each student desk where deaf students sat down." 1

The Deaf activists' strategy was to organize an election campaign to compete for the presidency of Feneida in 1986. According to João Carlos Carreira Alves, who was another of the pioneering Deaf leaders in the 1980s, the campaign's principle thrust was that "it made no sense for a deaf organization to be presided over by someone who was not deaf." 2 With Campello as the candidate for the presidency, the Deaf activists won the election. For Alves, the victory gave him "a feeling of joy, a sense that we can now finally make some progress." 3

The new board, which consisted of a Deaf majority, replaced the term 'hearing impaired' with 'Deaf' in the name of Feneida, meaning it became known as the Federação Nacional de Educação e Integração do Surdo (Feneis) [the National Federation for the Education and Integration of the Deaf]. This status of a national federation headed by Deaf activists meant that Feneis could be recognized by the federal government as the official representative of the Deaf social movement, and it was therefore able to occupy important political space within Brazilian state institutions and bodies (Assis Silva, 2012; Berenz, 1998).

These spaces of political action for different disabled national federations were opening up with the process of Brazilian re-democratization that had been forged with the successful actions of ground roots social movements, and which contributed vastly to creating and restructuring state structures surrounding the rights of people with disabilities and special educational needs.

In the new post-1985 republic, the federal government's most significant initiative was to create the Coordenadoria Nacional para Integração da Pessoa Portadora de Deficiência (Corde) [the National Coordinating Committee for the Integration of People with Disabilities], a body designed to guide and articulate social policies for the disabled person with an advisory council made up of representatives from national disabled associations and organizations, many of whom were disabled political activists, and therefore guaranteeing for the first time "participation at a governmental level" (Jannuzzi, 2004, p. 167).

According to Tarrow (2009), spaces of this kind are institutional structures that offer political opportunities for material and symbolic resources that may be indispensable to maintaining and developing social movements over time. Actions within these state spaces that are open to social participation and other public actions by organizations like Corde propelled the Disability movement in a variety of ways throughout the 1980s and 1990s. One of the most important of these was the financial support to be able to hold meetings, seminars and conferences on issues relating to disability rights (Lanna Júnior, 2010).

Corde was fundamental in the development of Feneis. Firstly, it recognized Feneis as the only national organization to represent the Brazilian Deaf, and this meant that it could offer a number of resources that were not only symbolic, but also material. Public funds were passed on directly to Feneis or were made available through projects, agreements and funding of different activities such as events and publishing institutional materials (Ramos, 2004). The role of being the official representative of the Brazilian Deaf meant that Feneis gradually increased its influence in comparison with other local and regional Deaf associations and entities, and these became increasingly influenced by its guidelines (Assis Silva, 2012; Brito, 2013).

Though the majority of Feneis' first Deaf leaders were oral deaf, they still recognized the importance of Sign language in Deaf communities and were convinced of the importance of defending the language in order to mobilize activists and attract both deaf and hearing support for the Deaf social movement. Thus, the organization's main goals – which were for Deaf social integration and education – were related to the use of Sign language in schools and special classes for deaf students, and to hiring Sign language interpreters within the public and private institutions that are part of deaf people's social networks. The right of deaf people to use Sign language was then presented to society and the State as a right of citizenship and was justified through its equal opportunities for social integration with the hearing (Brito, 2013; Souza, 1998).

Latency and Visibility in the Deaf Social Movement

According to Melucci (1996), social movements are systems of action that tend to alternate between latent and visible phases in their development. The latent phase is an invisible pole, in which new forms of organization, ideologies and identities are produced by group members. The latent phase in the Deaf social movement tended to focus more on daily activities at the Feneis headquarters in Rio de Janeiro, their other state offices, and on the several other affiliated deaf associations and cultural groups.

The idea of the Deaf having social rights began to gain currency particularly in places where Sign language came to be more highly valued, reversing the power relations between Sign language and Portuguese, which had always been the primary language in the educational and medical establishments attended by the Deaf at the time. The Feneis executive board meetings and other political and social events linked to the Deaf movement began to be held almost exclusively in Sign language. Gradually, the movement began to construct and disseminate a new representation of the Deaf, in which public Sign communication using hands and body was an affirmation of a positive Deaf identity in contrast to the generally accepted concept of deaf people with hearing aids: the lip-reading oral deaf who were trying to conform with hearing people. In this way, the latent phase made it possible to invent and experiment with an alternative form of social organization, where the standard of success for deaf people was no longer measured by oral proficiency and Portuguese, but by fluency in Sign language (Brito, 2013).

Deaf activists realized that their demands for Sign language were dependent on increasing the number of fluent Sign language users, and they used their knowledge and the Feneis structure and resources, together with local deaf associations to teach the hearing, and to thereby educate a new generation of interpreters and translators. Deaf campaigners were elated to be able to use Sign language freely, to be able to show it to the wider public, to communicate using the language, and to be able to teach it to the hearing. As time went by, Sign language teaching for the hearing became better structured and more professional; this Sign language teaching became one of Feneis' main activities (Berenz, 1998, 2003; Souza, 1998).

Feneis also invested significantly in courses for training and certifying deaf people as Libras sign language instructors, to ensure proficiency and competence, and to qualify them to teach the language. Training Deaf instructors added even greater value to the Deaf social movement. On the one hand, it made it possible to train deaf people, and therefore offered a way of minimizing the problem of unemployment or underemployment that affected many of them. On the other, it brought in new members to the movement, as the technical training was associated with political awareness (Brito, 2013; Felipe et al., 1998).

For Melucci (1996), public demonstrations are the pole of visibility for a social movement and need the meaning and guidance of interpretative frameworks and cultural codes produced in the latent phase. The first major public demonstration by the Deaf social movement was a march with between one and two thousand people along Copacabana beach on 25 September 1994, in the city of Rio de Janeiro (Berenz, 1998, 2003; Brito, 2013).

This march was organized by 'Surdos Venceremos' [We Deaf Will Overcome], a group composed of actors, set designers and costume designers from the Companhia Surda de Teatro [Deaf Theatre Company] led by Deaf artist and activist Nelson Pimenta de Castro, who recalled this demonstration as a genuine 'battle for rights':

I started to get some people together… we talked about the struggle of the Deaf, but people weren't yet talking about a law for Sign language… But we wanted a Libras Sign language law, and so we got together people from the Deaf Theatre Company, some people from the United States with whom I'd been in touch, and some people here in Rio de Janeiro, and we managed to bring together around a thousand people for the Copacabana march. 4

The Deaf who took to the streets that day in Copacabana rejected ideas of charity and pity and stood up for Deaf rights founded on the idea that all citizens have the "right to have rights." The march and declarations demanded the legal recognition of Libras and showed their repressed dissatisfaction with the prejudiced and discriminatory attitudes towards deaf people and Sign language, many of which were reproduced in special schools and in the health service.

As Lane (1997) described, for a long time, deaf people have been seen by many hearing people only through the lens of negative stereotypes of deafness, where they are portrayed as depressed, anxious, uncommunicative, socially isolated, pitiable, and suffering from the effects of their disability, which needs to be healed before they can become a complete human being. Activists wanted to subvert this dominant logic and sought to provide an alternative perspective for the hearing majority, and so they took to the streets to show they were confident and proud of their Deaf identity. Adult men and women from a wide range of professional backgrounds, and children and students communicated and expressed themselves in Sign language publicly with confidence, joy, and with a sense of pride in themselves and in what they were doing (Berenz, 1998, 2003). This public demonstration acted as a showcase for the alternative cultural models that had been generated in the latent phase, as it announced to society that they "are possible, specifically those that its collective action already practices and displays" (Melucci, 1994, p. 127).

After the demonstration, the campaign for the legitimization of Libras gained further impetus within the Deaf social movement. In Rio de Janeiro in June 1995, a group of hearing and deaf campaigners, supported by Feneis, created the Comitê Pró-Oficialização da Libras [the Libras Pro-Legitimization Committee], with the aim of announcing and listing the actions needed in a national campaign for official recognition of Libras throughout Brazil (Brito, 2013). This demand was founded on the ideology of the Disability movement and, as Deaf activist João Carlos Carreira Alves recalls, the Committee held lectures, demonstrations and debated "actions and strategies to contact members of parliament to persuade them to draw up and approve legislation on Deaf rights and regulation of Sign language." 5

Interaction between Deaf Activists and Intellectuals: The Discursive Change in the Deaf Social Movement

Over the 1990s, debate about legal recognition for Libras as a political struggle for citizenship began to share a platform with a new emerging discourse that justified this regulation using linguistic, socio-anthropological and pedagogical arguments, affirming the features of Libras Sign language, of the idea of Deafness as being linguistically distinct, and of bilingualism as the only true and correct approach to Deaf education (Assis Silva, 2012; Brito, 2013). The rise of this discourse and its transformation in the ideology of the Deaf social movement was driven by increased interaction between Deaf activists and academics, mainly some university professors and Sign language linguists whose research and teaching activities had a huge influence on collective actions and cultural productions of the Deaf social movement (Assis Silva, 2012; Brito, 2013; Ferreira Brito, 2003; Souza, 1998).

In the 1980s, the pioneering developments in this field were led by Lucinda Ferreira Brito, the first researcher to demonstrate the linguistic character of Sign languages used by the Brazilian Deaf, and by Eulalia Fernandes, who developed bilingual education activities with the participation of Deaf instructors. In 1993, the linguist Tanya Amara Felipe was directly involved in creating and coordinating a Libras research group at Feneis, which brought together both hearing and Deaf researchers (Felipe et al. 1998; Felipe, 2000).

Felipe was behind the text As comunidades surdas reivindicam seus direitos linguísticos [Deaf communities claiming their linguistic rights], which was the first publication by Feneis to state that the Deaf are a "linguistic minority as they have organized themselves into associations where their principle means of communication is a visual Sign language' (Feneis, 1993, p. 21). This text is one of the most evident signs of a discursive swing in the Deaf social movement towards a new ideology that in the following years became predominant among its members and proved to be crucial in attracting new activists, allies and sympathizers to the Deaf political struggle.

It was under the auspices of this new ideology that the Deaf social movement held one of its biggest marches, on 24 April 1999, in the city of Porto Alegre – a public demonstration which is an example of the movement's visible pole that culminated in the political act of delivering the text A educação que nós surdos queremos [The education that we, the Deaf, want] (Feneis, 1999) to the local public authorities, calling for the official recognition of Libras and bilingual education for the Deaf (Thoma & Klein, 2010).

The Background to the Struggle for the Approval of Libras Law at the National Congress

In 1993, members of the Comitê Pró-oficialização da Libras and leaders of Feneis met with Senator Benedita da Silva, from the Workers Party (PT) to try to convince her of the importance of a federal law to legally recognize Libras in Brazil. They based their claim both on arguments from the text As comunidades surdas reivindicam seus direitos linguísticos and on an academic assessment by the linguist Eulalia Fernandes, 6 drawn up at the Committee's request, which attested to the claim that Libras is a language in itself (Brito, 2013).

Both of these documents were used to substantiate the Senate Bill 131 (Congresso Nacional, 1996; PLS 131) of 13 June 1996 that was submitted by Senator Silva to legally recognize Libras. The main justification was that Sign languages are complete languages because they have grammatical rules, vocabulary, and the ability to generate an unlimited number of phrases, just like other natural languages, as they have arisen spontaneously from interaction between people in Deaf communities and can be acquired as a mother tongue. This means that although Deaf Libras users are a linguistic minority, their linguistic rights should be upheld by the Brazilian State.

After the submission of the PLS 131, the Deaf social movement used many means to stand up for their position and influence members of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies: the two Houses of the National Congress of Brazil responsible for making and voting national laws. The members of the movement became known for their active and persevering participation on audiences and scientific events promoted by the government to discuss the bill with society. Deaf campaigners chose to communicate in Libras accompanied by interpreters so they could assert the identity and the pride of Deaf signers. Deafness was described as a linguistic and cultural difference and never as a deficiency. Thus, the recognition of Libras meant the recognition of the natural language of a linguistic and cultural minority. The ideology born in the movement's latency was, therefore, made public through the dialogue with academics and it grew stronger and more visible throughout the years.

The political strength of this ideology and its wide support from academia and government agencies linked to Deaf rights and education became clear in the Commission O Surdo e a Língua de Sinais [The Deaf and the Sign Language], the most important governmental event on PLS 131. This meeting between representatives of organizations of and for the Deaf, academic researchers and public agency servants took place in Petrópolis, a city in Rio de Janeiro state, from 8 to 11 August 1996, and was promoted by Corde with the support of Universidade Católica de Petrópolis [Catholic University of Petrópolis] answering a request from Feneis and Federação de Pais e Amigos de Surdos [the Parents and Friends of the Deaf Federation] (Fenapas).

The final results of this Commission, which were compiled and published by Corde, express unrestricted support to the recognition of Libras. However, they also have some suggestions for changes in the bill, the most meaningful of which is the compulsory teaching of written Portuguese in Deaf education rather than Libras exclusively (Corde, 1996). This document became very important in the legislative process because it guided the writing of many technical reports made by official agencies to answer Members of Parliament requests for clarification (Brito, 2013).

According to participants, the final document recorded only the consensual proposals or those agreed by the majority and excluded controversies and tensions which were present in the discussions. The speech therapist and Deaf education researcher Ana Claudia Balieiro Lodi, for instance, recalls the resistance put up by some Deaf parents and friends organization representatives to Libras. In her words, they "were happier with oralism or bimodal bilingualism." 7 Lodi also mentions some speech therapists' corporatist resistance. They were worried about the effects of the new law in their labour market: "What will become of my job? Where will I work? If Libras takes over everything, the speech therapist will no longer work with the Deaf."' 8

While it was discussed in government and society events, the Senate continued to consider PLS 131 for almost two years and it underwent polemic changes. The rapporteur of one of the committees, Senator Marina Silva from PT, proposed, among other changes, the replacement of the name 'Língua Brasileira de Sinais' for 'Linguagem Brasileira de Sinais' – a terminological change the Deaf social movement opposed to. 9

For the movement's members 'língua de sinais' is the only truly valid term to refer to Libras since it is a visuospatial language just like oral languages such as French or Spanish and these are always called línguas, never linguagens. Thus, the term 'linguagem de sinais' is completely rejected because it is seen as a way of belittling Libras and treating it as inferior to oral languages.

On 2 December 1998, PLS 131 was sent to the Chamber of Deputies, where, after a lot of pressure, the name 'Língua Brasileira de Sinais' [Brazilian Sign Language] was restored. In a lengthy and bureaucratic process, the bill was discussed and approved by rapporteurs of three different commissions. It was sent back to the Senate only on 11 June 2001, where it was discussed and approved in two more commissions. Only then the bill was ready to be voted by the Senate.

So there could be enough votes and opinions in favour of it in these commissions, the Deaf social movement adopted many strategies to lobby. As reported by Daniela Richter Teixeira, president of Fenapas and one of most notorious activists in Brasília:

The bill must go through many commissions that judge its constitutional, legal and educational validity. When it was about to be presented to a commission, we would get a list with the names of the senators and deputies who were part of it and visit their offices. Since I am a hearing person, I didn't feel comfortable speaking for the Deaf, so I would always invite a group of Deaf people to come with me. In the offices we usually met advisors, but hardly ever any member of the commission. So, we used to leave a leaflet that explained the relevance of Libras. On the date of the commission, the group of Deaf people which went to it was bigger. We would always bring an interpreter with us and sometimes the Deaf choir managed to give a performance of the national anthem or something similar. I believe that these performances made the legislators more sensitive to our cause. None of them knew Deafness and its problems and sometimes they gave their ignorance away. 10

By the year 2000, the Deaf social movement was strengthened and it worked increasingly for PSL 131 to pass. In the first year of the new decade, Deaf activists handed in a petition with about 40 thousand signatures to Senator Pedro Simon, from the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB). This event, full of political symbolism, took place during the 1st Festival Brasileiro de Arte e Cultura Surda [Brazilian Deaf Art and Culture Festival] in Brasília's City Theatre. Senator Simon, who had always supported the bill, personally forwarded the petition to the presidents of the Senate and of the Chamber of Deputies (Assis Silva, 2012). In the following year, the I Conferência dos Direitos e Cidadania dos Surdos do Estado de São Paulo [Conference on the Rights and Citizenship of the Deaf of the State of São Paulo] (Condicisur), in the city of São Paulo, which was an essentially political event, resulted in more demonstrations and demands for public authorities to quicken the legal recognition of Libras (Zovico & Assis Silva, 2013).

On 3 April 2002, when the PLS 131 finally came to be voted on in the Senate, a number of Deaf activists grouped together early on the lawns in front of the National Congress and gave speeches and theatrical performances in Libras. Later on, over a hundred campaigners crowded into the Senate galleries, where they witnessed the bill's approval, and celebrated by applauding in Libras (with vertical hands open, palm to palm on each side of the head, with the wrists moving forwards and backwards several times, and with joyful facial expressions).

The Deaf social movement thus had an important victory whose crucial significance was revealed in the following years because the recognition of Libras allowed Deaf signers demands to be grounded on their linguistic right to communicate in Libras, which proved crucial, for instance, in education and accessibility. However, not every Deaf or hearing impaired person felt satisfied with the Libras law. A few months after the Senate's decision, on 8 September, a group of about 200 oral Deaf people – that is, those who communicate orally in Portuguese and understand orofacial reading – and more than 100 supporters published the manifesto Carta Aberta dos Surdos Oralizados aos Senadores [Open Letter from the Oral Deaf to the Senators]. The petitioners state that the recognition of Libras will not solve their information and communication problems; for instance, the lack of subtitles in TV programs and subtitled messages in airports. These petitioners advocated oralism as the only way to truly include Deaf people in society: "In our opinion, the sign language prompts the formation of ghettos" (Santana, 2007, p. 118).

Such tension between the oral Deaf and the Deaf signers persisted in the following years, above all in disputes over government policies regarding Deafness as when oral Deaf people demand accessibility through Portuguese instead of Libras such as installation of hearing loops in large public places and easier means to get cochlear implants (Zovico & Assis Silva, 2013).

Deaf Achievements after the Libras Law

After its approval by the Senate, the PLS 131 led to Federal Law 10.436 of 24 April 2002 (Presidência da República, 2002), better known as the 'Libras Law', which is accepted as having recognized Libras as the first language of the Deaf in Brazil, and for having defined it as a "visual-motor-linguistic system, with its own grammatical structure" that can be used to "transmit ideas and facts from the Deaf community in Brazil" (Art. 1, sole paragraph), but without "replacing the written mode of the Portuguese language" (Art. 4, sole paragraph).

In addition to conferring on it the status of a separate language, the same law also guarantees the "institutionalized means to support the use and dissemination" of Libras through "general public powers as well as public service contractors" and to disseminate it through teacher training courses for special education and standard teaching qualifications, and for language therapists and professionals working directly with the Deaf (Articles 2 and 4, respectively).

Three years after the Libras Law was approved, Decree 5.626 of 22 December 2005 published eight chapters of regulations, six of which were directly correlated to education and contained important articles that resulted in the introduction of educational policies nationally over the following years. This decree met the demands of the Deaf social movement on education. References to Deaf education are supported by its definition as bilingual, understood as "Libras and written Portuguese being instructional languages used in the development of the educational process as a whole" (Presidência da República, 2005, Art. 22 § 1o).

For Lodi (2013, p. 54), as well as the initiatives above, the norms resulting from the Libras Law and its regulatory decree ensure:

the training and certification of professionals involved in Deaf educational processes (teachers, instructors and translators/interpreters); the teaching of Portuguese as a second language; and the need to organize the system so as to include this bilingual education within regular education.

According to the federal government (Presidência da República, 2014), the years following the approval of the Libras Law were dedicated to supporting its implementation within Brazilian municipal and state bodies. To further Deaf rights, actions were taken to ensure the training of both Deaf students and deaf and hearing professionals to work with the Deaf. These measures are seen by the Deaf social movement as 'Deaf achievements' obtained through this decree and advocated by its members, society and the State.

Thus, Deaf education must be bilingual and must be offered "in bilingual schools and classes" and "inclusive schools," and in all cases must be "open to both deaf and hearing students," as ensured by the Decree 5.626 (Presidência da República, 2005), and Federal Law 13.005 of July 2014 (Presidência da República, 2014), the new National Education Plan.

The guidance for Deaf inclusion in standard teaching spans pre-school to higher education, and in order to guarantee specialized educational services, either complete or supplementary, it stipulates: "training courses for teachers for: a) the teaching and use of Libras; (b) the translation and interpretation of Libras/Portuguese; and c) Portuguese taught as a second language for deaf people" (Presidência da República, 2005, Art. 14, § 1o).

Initiatives aimed at creating teacher-training courses to teach Libras and Libras teacher training were increased in Brazil from 2005 onwards, with the support of the federal, state and municipal government, as well as private institutions. The guidelines, based on Decree 5.626, are to give priority access to the Deaf (Presidência da República, 2005, Articles 4 & 5) in further education training courses, both for Libras teaching "in the last years of primary school, in middle and high school, and in higher education" as well as "in pre-school education and in early years teaching,", although, in this case it is permissible for teachers to have "minimum qualifications […] to offer an average level of training that contributes to bilingual training" (Presidência da República, 2005, Art. 5, § 1o). In addition, in the case of "averagely qualified Libras instructors" priority is given to "the Deaf" (Presidência da República, 2005, Art. 6, § 2o).

Furthermore, Decree 5.626 (Presidência da República, 2005, Art. 3) states that Libras should be included as "a compulsory curricular subject in teacher training courses for mid and higher education and in speech therapy courses, public and private teaching institutions, and in the Federal, state and municipal teaching systems." This is a task for the federal, state and municipal educational systems, specified in this Law, and should be completed by 2015, which is the end of the first decade of Decree 5.626 (Presidência da República, 2005).

Decree 5.626 also stipulates that "Libras/Portuguese translation and interpretation training" should be promoted through programmes by the Department of Education with a view to creating undergraduate courses (Presidência da República, 2005, Art. 11). Already, the Libras proficiency exam is to be promoted annually by authorized government and civil bodies, and 'will qualify instructors and teachers' to teach deaf students (Presidência da República, 2005, Art. 8).

To sum up, the purpose of Decree 5.626 is to include Libras as a part of the curriculum, to offer teacher and translator and interpreter training in Libras, to teach Portuguese as a second language for deaf students and to promote bilingual education in a regular teaching environment.

However, guidelines for special education policies in Brazil after 2008 have become increasingly aligned with an inclusive perspective, to be implemented through access to regular education, with participation, learning and continuity given at higher levels of education, and by enrolling all students in the same class, with specialized complementary or supplementary options offered through other resources, as provided for in the Política Nacional de Educação Especial na Perspectiva da Educação Inclusiva [National Policy on Special Education from the Perspective of Inclusive Education] (Brasil, 2008).

According to Lodi (2013, p. 54), while this policy

envisions one single educational organization for all deaf students, in the Decree there is a concern that the early years of schooling should be differentiated from the later years, thereby respecting children's development, specificities in teacher-learning processes, and adequate teacher training.

Therefore, whereas Decree 5.626 demands that bilingual teachers should teach deaf students in the early years of education, National Policy since 2008 establishes only that translators and interpreters should be in all educational stages "without distinguishing the specific processes related to students' language development in Libras at each stage" (Lodi, 2013, p. 55).

This is not the only contradictory guideline on deaf students' education that can be found when contrasting current laws and official documents. These controversies may be related, among other issues, to a huge dispute on the interpretation of how to develop bilingual education for the Deaf in Brazil.

Generally, it is possible to distinguish two sides in this dispute which lingers on nowadays. On the one side, Deaf communities, the Deaf social movement and researchers in Deaf education have advocated that Libras should have a central role in deaf education and they think that bilingual schools that teach in Libras and in Portuguese are the most appropriate institutions to achieve that goal. On the other side, researchers in school inclusion, political and technical members of education state agencies have recommended the development of deaf bilingual education in regular schools.

A momentous event in this dispute happened in 2011, when the Deaf social movement headed a strong reaction against the announcement of closure of Ines School, the first and most traditional Deaf educational Brazilian institution. A surprising announcement was made in March 2011 by the Department of Special Educational Policies that Ines, which had been adopting bilingual education projects since the 1990s, would be closed by the end of the term and that its students would be sent to mainstream schools (Campello and Rezende, 2014).

This news had a huge impact on the social media and on the internet and it caused a commotion in the Brazilian Deaf community. Many prominent members of the Deaf community, including Deaf social movement leaders, had studied at Ines, which had witnessed many relevant historical events that played a crucial role in political struggles, cultural productions and scientific meetings related to the acknowledgement of Libras and Deaf rights.

Activists and Deaf social movement supporters' protests spread through many states of the country and its momentous event was the public manifestations that took place in the city of Brasília on 19 and 20 May 2011. In face of the social pressure, government changed its mind. Ines school remained open and it is still a reference in deaf education.

This Deaf social movement victory fuelled the struggle and enabled the demand for deaf bilingual schools to come into the spotlight, a demand that has been based mainly on the educational and linguistic rights of Decree 5.626 and on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – CRPD (United Nations, 2006).

CRPD was signed by the Brazilian government on 30 May 2007 and it has become a key factor in Deaf social movement discourse in the last decade, especially after it was ratified by the National Congress in 2008 and adopted as a constitutional rule by Decree 6.949 on 25 August 2009 (Presidência da República, 2009). This means that all laws and official documents of the country must adapt to it, under pain of being considered unconstitutional.

Deaf activists have highlighted especially the commitment of the signatory States, like Brazil, to adopt measures stipulated in its sections 24 and 30, which include "sign language learning facilitation and promotion of the Deaf linguistic community," "recruitment of teachers qualified for teaching Sign language" and assurance that Deaf people education is "given in the most appropriate languages and through the best media to each person in places that benefit their academic and social development the most" (Presidência da República, 2009, Art. 24, § 3 e 4). Actions that ensure the acknowledgement and support of their "specific cultural and linguistic identity," "which includes Sign language and Deaf culture," are also highlighted (Presidência da República, 2009, Art. 30, § 4).

In the Deaf movement members and supporters' point of view, maintenance and expansion of Deaf bilingual schools remains the best way – if not the only one – for the Brazilian government to ensure theses rights, because they are the educational institutions that have the most appropriate conditions, resources and teaching-learning atmosphere to meet the specific cultural and linguistic characteristics of this particular social group. Such political position has been reinforced by the results of scientific researches which demonstrated that Deaf Brazilian students "learn more and better in bilingual schools" (CAPOVILLA, 2011, p. 86).

Recently, CRDP and its Optional Protocol provided theoretical and legislative ground for Federal Law 13.146 from 6 July 2015, also known as Lei Brasileira de Inclusão da Pessoa com Deficiência (LBI) [the Brazilian Law on the Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities] or Estatuto da Pessoa com Deficiência [Statute on Persons with Disabilities] (Presidência da República, 2015), which is another important milestone in the history of disabled people struggle for their rights.

LBI reaffirms the right of Deaf people to bilingual education with Libras as their first language and written Portuguese as their second language. The same law states that this education can continue to be offered both in bilingual schools or classes and in inclusive schools (Presidência da República, 2015, Art. 28, § 4). Thus, this law preserves the controversy on where and how should Deaf bilingual education can be developed.

Final Considerations

The approval of the Libras Federal Law was the culmination of the campaign idealized by the Deaf social movement to legalize Sign language in Brazil. In the years following, this law gave the movement more favourable conditions to strengthen its position and to guarantee the rights of Deaf Sign language users (Quadros, 2006; Quadros and Campello, 2010; Zovico & Assis Silva, 2013).

Analysis of the path that led to the approval of the Libras Law highlights the efforts of Deaf activists, which were seen in a variety of events. The idea of there being a need for a national law to officially recognize the language was created by the Deaf social movement, and with time it became the leitmotiv of its most significant collective actions between 1990 and 2000, with public demonstrations, the creation of the Comitê Pró-oficialização da Libras, the formulation and delivery of documents, manifestos and petitions to public bodies, and the lobbying of members of parliament.

The Libras Law was regulated by Decree 5.626, which relied on the support of the Deaf social movement to expound the need for bilingual education for Deaf students. Since the late 2000s, the CRPD has also been used as a powerful weapon for Deaf activists' struggles, especially in the education field, in which they have supported policies to guarantee Deaf students access to bilingual schools.

For many deaf people, the main battle has focused on being understood by society and by the Brazilian State as members of a Deaf community with its own culture and language. To protect this culture and preserve their Deaf identity, they also want to ensure that their education guarantees their right to fulfil their potential in Sign language.

Acknowledgment

The authors would like to thank the interviewees for giving their time and sharing their experiences.

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Author's Note

Fábio Bezerra de Brito, Faculty of Education, University of São Paulo, Brazil; Rosângela Gavioli Prieto, Faculty of Education, University of São Paulo, Brazil.

Correspondence should be addressed to Fábio Bezerra de Brito, Faculty of Education, University of São Paulo, São Paulo, SP, Brazil, 05508-040. E-mail: frbrito@usp.br

Notes

  1. Interview granted to the author. Rio de Janeiro, 26 February. 2013.
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  2. Interview granted to the author. Rio de Janeiro, 19 October. 2012.
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  3. Interview granted to the author. Rio de Janeiro, 19 October. 2012.
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  4. Interview granted to the author. Rio de Janeiro, 30 January. 2013. Libras Sign language interpreter: Emanoela Bezerra de Araújo.
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  5. Interview granted to the author. Rio de Janeiro, 19 October. 2012.
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  6. Requested by the National Federation of Deaf Education and Integration on Sign Language used in the Urban Centres of Brazil. Published later in Fernandes (1994).
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  7. Interview granted to the author. São Paulo, 23/24 August 2013.
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  8. Interview granted to the author. São Paulo, 23/24 August 2013.
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  9. It is important to highlight that in Portuguese there are two words for the English "language". "Língua" means a sign system with specific internal organization used by speakers in order to communicate and interact, whereas "linguagem" refers to systems of communication in general, either natural our artificial, human or not. Further information on this subject can be found in Quadros and Karnopp (2004).
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  10. Interview granted to the author. Brasília, 21 January / 20 February 2013.
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