In civilized societies, persons with disability (PWDs) are able to live as close to normal lives as possible, with affirmative action in terms of employment and provisions for them in the form of ramps for wheelchairs, dedicated parking slots, allocated seats in public transport, specific toilets, etc. These provisions are rarely found in this neck of the woods, and even if available, are quickly appropriated with no compunction by the able-bodied—a sad indictment of many Filipinos as having no compelling idea of the realities confronting the PWDs among them. It will take a while for Philippine society to fully recognize PWDs as having not only the same rights and privileges as others but also special needs that should not give rise to their being treated with condescension, contempt and downright cruelty.
As independent and as capable as she is, Election Commissioner Grace Padaca is no stranger to the difficulties of PWDs by dint of her being a polio survivor. Last week she managed to remind society at large of the travails of the disabled by describing how she was treated like “a piece of baggage” by ground personnel of a local airline. “[Like many other PWDs] I was again referred to as if I were a thing… ‘That one already has a boarding pass,’ one of them said as I was being wheeled to the passenger terminal,” Padaca posted on her Facebook account. It is seemingly small things like these that hold back PWDs from full acceptance, she said.
This is ironic considering that according to the 2010 Census of Population and Housing, there are 1.4 million disabled persons in the Philippines, representing 1.57 percent of the total number of households nationwide. This number is up from the 2000 figure of 935,551 PWDs, or 1.23 percent. Not only are PWDs an integral part of the nation, they also represent a growing voice in our society—though that voice is often muffled, if heard at all.
Discrimination is a fundamental factor in the exclusion of PWDs from the mainstream. This, despite a law enacted in 1992: Republic Act No. 7277, also known as the Magna Carta for Disabled Persons, which states that “the State shall adopt policies ensuring the rehabilitation, self-development and self-reliance of disabled persons [and] shall develop their skills and potentials to enable them to compete favorably for available opportunities,” and that “disabled persons have the same rights as other people to take their proper place in society.” RA 7277 was amended in 2007 by RA No. 9442, which bolsters the Magna Carta with other privileges for PWDs.
Both the private and public sectors have been trying to carry out the ideals of these laws. Local government units have offered incentives and programs for PWDs, though these differ from city to city. The National Council on Disability Affairs (NCDA), provided government lawyers exclusively for PWDs in danger of being marginalized by the justice system in 2012. Additionally, the NCDA has been training frontline government officials in dealing with the disabled. Private industry has endeavored to provide PWDs with proper employment, and nongovernment organizations like Tahanang Walang Hagdanan Inc. have championed PWD-friendly projects such as the e-wheelchair and its own training center for the disabled. Padaca and other NGOs such as Fully Abled Nation have worked to make sure that PWDs can vote properly during elections.
Individually and collectively, certain Filipinos, PWDs among them, have fought to overcome the stigma and stereotypes attached to the disabled. But their vigorous efforts are clearly not enough to prevent PWDs from being isolated, discriminated against, disenfranchised, or made the subjects of scorn and crass humor.
The Philippines has certainly fallen behind much of the world when it comes to giving the disabled the respect that they deserve. It is not even widely known that Dec. 3 of every year is the International Day of PWDs. In a statement acknowledging that there are more than one billion PWDs on the planet, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon reminds us that “we must remove all barriers that affect the inclusion and participation of PWDs in society through changing attitudes that fuel stigma and institutionalize discrimination.”
Ignorance and bigotry being the way they are, a change in attitude toward the disabled will not occur overnight. But we must pull together to begin to achieve it.
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