What they can do, not what they can’t
I was in Davao City during Disability Week last July and I watched, with great interest, a talent show called “Sayawitan” which featured children with disabilities (CWDs). The activity was divided into categories of disability: visual and hearing impairment, Down syndrome, autism and other forms of “intellectual disability.”
The purpose of the activity, as one of the speakers said, was to show the public that CWDs are just like any other children: They, too, can sing, dance, and have fun. But the very need for a special activity just for the CWDs echoes another point that the speakers raised: Persons with disabilities (PWDs), including children, continue to be excluded from society.
What can we do to help?
First, our attitudes toward PWDs must change from that of pity to respect. If you pity someone, you presuppose their lamentable state, and assume that you are in a better position. Respect, on the other hand, acknowledges the dignity of their personhood as the starting point in engaging with them.
Second, we must support efforts to prevent disability. Some disabilities can be prevented; others can be mitigated through therapies, assistive devices, and rehab. But we must also realize that disability, as a lived experience, is not a disease needful of cure but a difference needful of understanding.
This brings me to the most important task we should undertake: building an inclusive society. We take it for granted, but our world is designed for people with two feet, functioning senses of sight and hearing, and certain social skills. We need to reimagine our world to accommodate people with different abilities. In some areas, this is already happening: Traffic lights are accompanied by sounds to assist the visually-impaired; TV shows are captioned so the hearing-impaired can watch them, as Republic Act No. 10905 mandates Philippine networks to do.
One of the biggest obstacles of PWDs is finding employment. Often, their depression and other negative emotions stem from feelings of being a “burden” to the family. Sadly, many firms are unwilling to employ PWDs even if they are qualified. And even if they are willing, commuting to the offices is close to impossible. Thus, there is need for inclusive mobility: Our modes of transportation, including walking, should be accessible—and safe—for everyone.
To be fair, the government has taken steps to help. For instance, PhilHealth launched a benefit package in 2013 that covers prosthetic limbs and rehab services; plans for expansion are underway. But much more needs to be done in integrating PWDs into the government workforce, and in ensuring that all CWDs get a suitable education and our great disability laws are fully implemented.
The private sector also has a big role. In Puerto Princesa’s Ka Inato, some staff members are deaf, and customers are given a sign language chart so they can sign their orders. In Manila, Mann Hann restaurants have been known to hire young people with autism. We can encourage these moves by patronizing these inclusive establishments and encouraging others to follow their lead.
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I left the “Sayawitan” with mixed feelings. On one hand, I saw the communities that have been built by CWDs, their very proud families, and the very supportive disability advocates. On the other hand, beyond seeing the CWDs sing and dance, I wondered how much the people in the audience would take home from the event, aside from the pictures and videos they took. Perhaps the fact that PWDs have special talents is extraordinary, but the real challenge is to make it ordinary: for PWDs not to sing as one group, but as part of other groups; not by themselves, but alongside others.
If there’s one message that we need to share, it is that PWDs are persons with abilities. Let’s build a world where they can focus on what they can do, instead of letting them be hindered by what they cannot.
Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist. Follow him at Gideon Lasco on Facebook and @gideonlasco on Twitter and Instagram.
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