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Advocating PWD rights, one jeepney ride at a time
Ofelia Empian

EMPOWERING THE PWDs -- Avelino Tomas (with mic) discusses with members of the Baguio City Council the importance of creating a Persons with Disability Affairs Office and designating a PWD affairs officer to promote the welfare and rights of PWDs. -- Ofelia C. Empian

 
It was not easy looking for a coffee shop in the central business district of Baguio City where persons with disability on wheelchair can comfortably sit. One has to consider the ramps, the spaces in between seats (where wheelchairs can be maneuvered), and accessibility to the toilet, among other things.

This was my experience when looking for a place to interview Avelino Tomas, president of the Federation of Persons with Disabilities in Baguio and Cordillera.

The question, “Do you have ramps for PWDs?” often baffled security guards and restaurant staff, obviously unaccustomed to the query and not trained on how to handle PWDs.

I was able to find an establishment with a ramp, although not completely PWD-friendly since the ramp did not extend all the way to the entrance. Tomas had to “carry” his weight to go up the elevated area to enter said establishment. We ended up talking along the hallway, where the coffee shop has its extension since there is no space enough to maneuver the wheelchair inside.

Despite the existence of accessibility laws in the country, many establishments of government and private agencies are still slow in implementing such laws said Tomas, who was born a thalidomide baby, having underdeveloped lower extremities, affecting his mobility and making him dependent on his wheelchair ever since.

There are laws, such as Batas Pambansa 344 or the act that mandates the installment of devices within establishments and public utilities to allow the mobility of PWDs and Republic Act 7277 or the Magna Carta for PWDs passed in 1992, in which the Philippines is the pioneer in all of Asia. It even predates the 2006 United Nations Convention on the Rights of PWDs, to which the country is a signatory.

The Magna Carta for PWDs also provides for “reasonable accommodation” which includes the improvement of existing facilities and provision of auxiliary aid and services to PWDs, as defined by law.  

He said he has participated in conducting the recent “access audit,” led by the Department of Public Works and Highways and participated in by various agencies, in evaluating the compliance of establishments in the city to accessibility laws. However, they have yet to see the results of the audit, he said.

Advocacy inside the jeepney

Despite mobility problems, Tomas still manages to attend about six meetings in a month, promptly attending forums when it comes to PWDs, and ready to answer when a member needs his help.

Tomas is at the fore of PWD advocacies in the city and the region as a representative of the PWD sector. He takes every opportunity to sit down with various agencies especially during budget deliberations and other meetings as the voice of the PWD sector.

In attending meetings, he rarely takes the cab. He takes the jeepney going to and from their house in Beckel, La Trinidad, Benguet. He provides his own fare in every meeting, forum, and important errand he attends to. The Federation does not have regular funding aside from proposals and programs funded by agencies. 

“I hesitated at first, but later I thought of it as a way to open the eyes of the public that we exist. I used the situation as an illustration for the community to see the plight of PWDs,” he said.

When asked how he gets inside the jeepney, he explained he would board, with help from the drivers and other commuters, at the back of the jeep where PWD-designated seats are, then they would fold his wheelchair which he will hold.

“It slowly taught them how to treat PWDs on wheelchair and now the barkers, drivers, and some commuters know me,” he said.

Tomas, as the forefront of PWDs not only in the city but the whole region, said it is not easy fighting for their rights mostly through dialogues with various agencies. He is also the PWD sector representative in the National Anti-Poverty Commission-CAR.

This entails a lot of sacrifice; ever since ta-king up the responsibility in the PWD federation. He gave up his 10-year job as a maker of educational materials in the Institute for Inclusive Education at Saint Louis University. His wife, a PWD on wheelchair too, currently works there.

“Someone needs to see to it that our rights are respected. We have laws to back up our claims,” Tomas, a Business Administration graduate, said.

Department of Social Welfare Development-Cordillera head Janet Armas said it was also hard for them to organize meetings with or involving PWDs due to accessibility issues.

Prior to the Regional Council on Disabi-lity Affairs meeting on April 22, they carefully scouted venues where PWDs, especially those using wheelchairs, can be catered.

She said not all government offices have accessible venues to cater to all kinds of PWDs.

Minsan kailangan talaga namin silang buhatin para iakyat,” she said.

Armas admitted that addressing the needs of the local PWD sector still has a long way to go.

“We need the help of all agencies to help address their specific needs,” she said adding they are doing what they can to assist PWDs in the region.

PWD concerns are more than just mobility problems, said Tomas.

“It is a wide range of difficulties – it starts from the day we were born until we grow old,” he said.

These are the challenges on the inclusion of PWDs in the community – in regular schools, in the employment sector, and recognition of their quest for more accessible voting areas and providing assistance to them when voting, among other concerns. Basically, it is the right to be included in all facets of society, with proper care and understanding of their condition.

SPED schools and employment

The Magna Carta for PWDs provides that PWDs should have access to quality education.

However, programs in the various special education schools also need to be revamped to further cater to the needs of special students. There are available programs for children with disabilities but once they reach adulthood, the school does not have a higher course to cater to them.

The law also provides that the government shall allocate funds necessary for the effective implementation of the special education program nationwide. Local government units may likewise appropriate counterpart funds to supplement national funds.

Benguet Special Education (SPED) teacher Violeta Santos said they have accommodated students with intellectual disabilties in the past, but upon reaching adulthood, their parents would stop sending them to school, mostly due to lack of resources to continue paying school fees.  

Santos said it would be nice for PWDs to have a training center where they would be cared for when they become adults, one that will train students to be ready for employment in the future.

Santos teaches students basic life skills   in her vocational class, such as doing chores and caring for household items. Students are also taught to read road signs, danger signs in appliances, and poison warning labels.

The classes also cover skills enhancement so students with special needs can land a job in the future. The school will eventually recommend them to institutions for higher learning such as institutions accredited by the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority.

For now, Santos said it would be good if their relatives who have businesses would employ these students. Still, the future employment especially for PWDs with intellectual disabilities is not as clear compared to PWDs who are blind or those with orthopedic disabilities.

When it comes to employment, Tomas said most PWDs are self-employed, are part of cooperatives, working in massage parlors, working as desk-makers, working in watch repair shops, and employed in government offices and private companies.

He lauded the Baguio General Hospital for considering PWDs to be part of its workforce.

“These institutions are slowly opening up to employ our sector and we are thankful to them,” he said.

Inaccurate estimation of PWDs

Tomas said efforts in identification and profiling of PWDs are still lacking. This is needed for agencies to base their programs for PWDs, also for PWD groups to know what policies or proposals they can give to their local government units, where mostly PWD programs are devolved, to cater PWDs in their specific areas.

The City Social Welfare Development Office has pegged the total number of PWDs in Baguio City at 1,400. Based on the 2010 census, the PWD sector comprises 1.2 percent or 3,789 of the city’s total household population of 318,676.

According to the Asia Foundation in one of its 2014 articles published in their website, “one of the reasons the concerns of PWDs remain invisible is due to inaccurate estimates of their overall number.”

“The Philippines doesn’t have a comprehensive or effective system of counting the total number of PWDs. For example, the 2010 government census puts the total number of PWDs at 1.44 million people, which is 1.57 percent of the population. But the World Health Organization states that on average, PWDs make up 10 percent of the population, suggesting there is an apparent undercounting by almost nine million,” the organization added.

Even with this, Tomas said they are looking to the government for interventions to address their plights. He has been lobbying for the establishment of Persons with Disability Affairs Office in the city and just last year, the city council in its Ordinance 40-2015, called for the creation of PDAO. This was signed on Sept. 14, 2015. A PDAO is also established in nearby La Trinidad, a feat that the PWD Federation lauded.

RA 10070, signed in 2010, states that every province, city and municipality must create PDAOs and designate a PWD affairs officer. The law states that priority is given to PWDs to man the office.

A lot to be done

With his passion and dedication for PWD advocacy, Tomas said many misunderstand his boldness and straightforwardness sometimes.

“How can you not be disappointed when you see those in power just shrugging off our plight, telling us that ‘we are not the only sector’ being catered by them,” he said.

So in the coming polls, they are looking at “PWD champions” who would certainly assist in uplifting their sector.

“Our plight is not welfare-based. It should be rights-based,” said Tomas.

He said welfare is like on a short-term basis, giving provisions for PWDs just to ease their current situation. A rights-based approach, he said, is what will sustain them. This includes the provision of not only livelihood programs or skills training but actually assisting them in job matching to possible employers. This is what a PDAO officer should do, he added.

“There’s a lot more that needs to be done for PWDs,” he stressed.

He is currently training upcoming PWD leaders. He said it’s time to pass the leadership to other PWDs.

“I need to take care of my family but I will still continue to assist them,” said Tomas, who has four children, the oldest at 11 years old and the youngest, only a year old.

PWDs are part of society. Although they comprise a small percentage in the community, they can still be as effective as their physically/mentally-able counterparts. All it takes is a strong support system from the community – the national government down to the barangay local government; the civil society organizations; the churches; their friends and their families—for them to be able to reach their maximum potential despite their conditions.

“It’s all a change of mindset. We can still function if they give us the chance to prove ourselves. But the community should be sensitive enough to our needs too,”  Tomas said.

After our conversation, Tomas glanced at his wristwatch and said, “Well, I still have jeepney ride.” He then wheeled away as quickly as he came in, needing little help from the security guard to move down the rampless exit of the establishment, joining the crowd of “abled” people crammed inside the jeepney bound for home.
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