It took a weekend trip to the mall, with my elder brother traveling in a wheelchair for the first time, for me to discover to my horror how mean and insensitive people can be to persons with disability.
In the parking area, for example, there are supposed to be designated slots for vehicles carrying PWDs. These slots are right next to the mall entrance, not because of any desire of PWDs to be given special treatment for its sake, but so that they don’t have to walk or travel too far to get inside. Taking just a few steps can be quite exhausting, or even downright impossible, for people not as mobile as the rest of us.
When we got to the PWD parking area, there were no more slots available, so we were forced to park quite a distance from the entrance. I thought to myself that maybe there were many PWDs visiting the mall that Sunday. There was a big postholiday sale going on, after all.
It was the security guard at the entrance who told us that not-so-very-senior citizens had claimed some of the slots. He said they pretended to have difficulty walking but that as soon as they got past him, they miraculously straightened up and walked briskly to the elevators.
They were not disabled at all. They just felt entitled to those slots beside the entrance, thus depriving those who really need the space—like my cancer-stricken, wheelchair-bound brother—of some relief and consideration.
To his credit, the guard apologized for the inconvenience. Even he saw the injustice of it, but said he could not argue with customers, who really should know better. It was sad to know that the unauthorized use of the parking slots for PWDs is more the rule than the exception.
When we finally got inside the mall, my brother was happy to just window-shop and see what remained of the colorful holiday decorations and displays. Never mind that some mall-goers gawked at him, as if wheelchair-bound people were circus freaks. To think that he looked “normal,” with no obvious signs of his advanced brain cancer. Imagine the stares that those with cerebral palsy, for instance, have to endure.
After looking at all the shops on the second floor, my brother asked to see the other shops on the upper floors. We went to the elevator, and that presented yet another opportunity to wonder at whatever happened to human decency.
Instead of the mall-goers giving way to my brother in his wheelchair and our 72-year-old mother, they rushed past us to get inside—despite the very clear sign on the elevator saying that priority should be given to senior citizens and PWDs. My dagger looks were of no use because they were trying their best to look at everything and everyone else except us. They pretended that we weren’t there, and that they were not doing anything so obviously and painfully wrong.
Fortunately, the elevator operator called the attention of the other mall-goers and said they should give way to our small group that had no option but to use the elevator. The escalator was simply beyond my brother’s limited capabilities.
Then came the time to eat, and our third encounter with the sad truth that life is doubly difficult for PWDs. We had to leave the mall because my brother wanted to eat at a particular restaurant outside. There was a ramp, which allowed me to wheel him out, but then the restaurant did not have an access ramp for PWDs. The step was just six inches off the ground, but it might as well have been six feet because it presented an insurmountable barrier for the wheelchair.
Since Kuya weighs over 200 pounds, my mother and I could not carry him and his wheelchair up that little step. We had to help him up and ask him to stand awhile, just so I could lift the chair up that step.
It’s a good thing that he can still stand and walk a few steps, but his condition will soon deteriorate to the point that he will no longer be able to even stand. That will severely limit his options, as PWDs in the Philippines know only too well.
My brother can also still consider himself fortunate because he has family members with a car that can transport him from one place to another. What about those with no access to a private vehicle?
Public transport is out of the question. Jeepneys and buses are fit only for able-bodied people. The Metro Rail Transit and the Light Rail Transit do have access ramps and elevators, but assuming PWDs manage to go up on their own using the now-it’s-working, now-it’s-not elevator, how are they supposed to fight through the crowd during rush hour and get into the coaches? They might as well sign their death warrant.
And I have seen taxi drivers ignore a PWD on their route because they do not want to exert the effort of helping the person into their cab and putting the wheelchair in the trunk. No wonder that many of those in wheelchairs hardly leave their homes, unless they really have to, thus limiting their abilities to become productive members of society.
It shames me to admit now that before that fateful Sunday at the mall, I did not really spare a thought for the daunting challenges that PWDs face every single day. The ramps and signs on bathrooms and elevators were invisible to me. I just took it for granted that they are taken care of.
But they are not.
We Filipinos have to do our share to help ease the burden of PWDs. And it doesn’t take much to get a load off their shoulders. One can simply help them up a step, or give way to those entering the elevator. Not parking in the space allotted for them is already a radical move.
Don’t wait until illness or an accident forces you or a loved one into a wheelchair before you have a change of mind and heart.
Tina Arceo-Dumlao is a desk editor at the Inquirer’s Business section.