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Commentary

Uncounted casualties

A disability advocate reported in an international conference that before the series of tsunamis struck South and Southeast Asia in 2004, there were 500 wheelchair users in a coastal town in India. After, nil.

Perhaps the advocate exaggerated the figures. When I heard about the report, I dismissed it right away but I understood the point: when disasters strike, Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) are extremely vulnerable. The advocate wanted to emphasize the issue.

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Now, I am beginning to believe that the figure mentioned was an undercount, even accurate.

Presenting numbers, especially big ones, is important in rallying support in democratic societies. Democracy, as experienced by most people, is simply the showing of hands, or the literal voicing out (viva voce) of one’s choice; whoever or whatever gets the more hands in the air or makes the most noise, gets the power and attention.

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This is the problem of the disability advocates in the Philippines for some PWDs do not have hands and some have no voice. PWDs are undercounted and the official figures confuse. The last published census by the National Statistics Office, in 2000, revealed that the proportion of PWDs to the total population was 1.23 percent. The prevalence survey of the Department of Health, done from 2000 to 2002, revealed the percentage to be higher at 2.9. The Department of Education, in a press statement in 2010, estimated the percentage of Children with Disability (one-fifth of the PWD population per the 2000 census) in need of special education to be at 5 percent of the total population. Three government agencies with three different official figures.

It is due to this confusion with the official figures that I have always defaulted to the World Health Organization (WHO) PWD estimates for developing countries, like the Philippines, which is 10 percent.

The confusing figures and the undercounting have done a lot of disservice to PWD Filipinos. In the last published census, PWD literacy rate was at 69.23 percent (the literacy rate of non-PWDs is at 92.57 percent). If we follow the WHO estimates, the PWD literacy rate is barely 8.5 percent. In the same census, only 58 percent of PWDs had gainful employment. The 2008 Philippine Institute on Development Studies study of 400 PWDs in Metro Manila revealed almost the same figure, 50 percent.

Literacy programs for PWDs and the establishment of special education centers are slow in coming and employment opportunities and policies benefiting PWDs are scarce because the need for them can hardly be established by the official figures.

Currently, there are two bills in the House of Representatives which seek to establish services which are perhaps even more basic than literacy and employment—security to life. These bills hope to make national TV newscasts and our courts accessible to a PWD subgroup, the deaf.

One of the bills, House Bill 4121, requires local TV stations “to provide sign language insets and, if possible, subtitles in at least two newscast programs a day and special programs covering events of national significance.”

A deaf-advocate doubts that HB 4121 will become law for the deaf just do not have the numbers. And TV stations are driven mad over ratings.

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There are only around 120,000 deaf persons in the Philippines, according to the data provided by the Philippine Deaf Resource Center in the bill’s explanatory note. That is actually an undercount, for that was the result of the 2000 census.

If we follow the low-to-medium population growth projections of the National Statistics Office from the census, the current population of deaf Filipinos would be around 148,000. If we follow the estimates of the WHO, the deaf population would be over a million now.

Even with over a million deaf, the number may perhaps not be enough for the TV stations. This is the reason why equity, mandated by the Philippine Magna Carta for Persons with Disability and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability, has to be invoked. Positive state actions must be pursued to ensure that PWDs progress toward equality with the majority non-PWDs. TV stations should begin counting the PWDs.

Since the start of national TV coverage, deaf Filipinos have been left as non-participants in nation-building, with relevant and timely information generally inaccessible to them. Imagine not having access to TV news all your life—and that is what the deaf have experienced for over 50 years. This exclusion of the deaf is one of the reasons why the group’s literacy rate has faltered behind the non-deaf’s. Yes, literacy can be achieved through the idiot box.

There is one other reason not mentioned in the bill’s explanatory note that is quite urgent, especially during this “Ondoy”-probable season: the deaf’s protection from calamities. Deaf persons have long been kept in the dark on events which could very well end their lives. In this case, information denial is potentially homicidal. We do not know how many deaf have been affected by the countless calamities that visited our country and we do not know how many PWDs, mainly because we have not been counting them.

HB 4631, on the other hand, mandates institutions during the conduct of investigations and public hearings, involving deaf persons, to hire sign language interpreters. The inaccessibility of our barangay halls, police precincts, courts and other government institutions for the deaf has made them vulnerable to crime and abuse.

Notably, girls are particularly vulnerable among the deaf. They are the ones who suffer the most horrible forms of sexual abuse: gang rape, repeated abuse and incest.

We hope that Congress can work on the bills now that the recess period is over. We hope that you contact your honorable representatives to immediately pass the bills. Let us not wait for illiteracy, crime and calamities to slowly wipe out all our deaf kababayan.

Roberto S. Salva is the executive director of the Catholic Ministry to Deaf People. Contact him at [email protected] To know more about the bills and what you can do, visit http://housebills4deaf.webs.com.

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TAGS: Persons with Disabilities (PWDs), Philippine Deaf Resource Center, Philippine Magna Carta for Persons with Disability, sexual abuse, United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability, wheelchairs
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