People with disabilities face tough time at polls

Jhoanna Paola Ballaran
There are about 4.2 million people with disabilities in the Philippines and roughly 2.6 to 3 million of them are qualified to vote

MANILA, Philippines – Voting is everyone’s right but for some with physical incapacities, it is a challenge.

Richard Palmes, a barangay administrator in Antipolo, first voted in the 1998 presidential elections. It was hard for him to explain how inconvenient for him to walk upstairs to his precinct and cast his ballot. The hurdling crowd added tension to his numb limbs, but he still continued and found his way to the polling area just to exercise his right to vote.

He has cerebral palsy. As young as 3 years old, his sickness made him crippled and caused him to use a crutch for walking. Since then, he wasn’t able to run like the others and play. Life wasn’t that easy for him, especially in a society where people with disabilities (PWDs) are of least importance.

There are about 4.2 million PWDs in the Philippines and roughly 2.6 to 3 million of them are qualified to vote. They may be crippled, paralyzed, blind, mute or deaf who seeks to be a part of the election process. But their essential right to suffrage is being restrained by their physical inabilities which make voting a tough time for them.

“We have to go up the stairs to find our precincts… it’s really difficult for me, especially I’m in crutches,” Palmes said.

Structures do not only add to their adversity, but also the people in the precincts who won’t give priority to a PWD like him, despite the presence of an election officer especially assigned for PWDs.

WILLFULL THINKING. Richard Palmes proved that PWDs, just like any other person, are important part of the society.

PWDs: A part of the Society

According to the United Nations, there are approximately 650 million people or 10% of the world’s population has a disability and 80% of these are from developing countries. It is expected to increase in the coming decades as an effect of population growth and other external factors like ageing, diseases, and conflicts.

PWDs are often excluded and indeed a marginalized sector in the society. But according to Australian Aid (AusAID) Minister Counsellor Octavia Borthwick, they are ‘normal part of human experience’. It is not a problem the public should address but a natural existence every country should deal with. Disabilities are oftentimes acquired at birth, during accidents or medical conditions, some circumstances one cannot avoid.

But contrary to what the word ‘disabled’ implies, PWDs as we know are not totally incapacitated. They may lack some sensory or physical abilities but they know how to live with these difficulties.

“I think it’s just a matter of self-confidence. You shall never pity yourself even though you’re not physically complete. It’s wrong,” Palmes advised.

Low voter turnout

Throughout the years, PWDs’ participation in the elections has been minimal. In a recent Social Weather Station (SWS) survey, the rate of PWDs who voted decreased from 60% in 2007 to 54% in 2010 while the number of PWDs who registered but didn’t vote increased from 14% in 2007 to 21% in 2010.

But even with this low voter turnout in the PWD sector, there are still positive lessons gained from the past elections. According to Ronnel del Rio, a radio broadcaster from Batangas with total blindness, there is a certain improvement in the campaign for the PWD’s participation in the national elections.

“At least the campaign today is being recognized by Comelec and also the community. Unlike before, some people are wondering why we, the PWDs, are voting after all our disabilities,” Del Rio shared.

Voting for the first time in 1986 is indeed a blissful experience for Del Rio for he finally exercised his right to suffrage. As a PWD rights advocate since the 80’s, he admitted that laws like the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and the Magna Carta for the Disabled or RA 7277 helped in recognizing the rights and welfare of the sector. This recognition also paved way for international aid agencies, like the AusAID, to acknowledge the campaign and support it through financial means.

This recognition by different institutions, both local and international, implied a point of success for PWD rights advocate. However, a long-term goal should be set to make the campaign sustainable and independent.

“What if the funding from AusAID stops, how will we continue the project? The government should have proper allocation and attention for these projects to sustain it. The sector itself should also have their own interest on the matter. If they don’t speak out and act on their issues, then nothing will happen,” Del Rio told Rappler.

It is also a given situation that most PWDs are not involved in most sectoral programs because of some personal and external reasons. Some may be ashamed of themselves or some have mobility issues. But Palmes and Del Rio encourages their fellow PWDs to be active in organizations so that they, too, can have voice and help the campaign for their rights and welfare.

“We must not be ashamed of our disabilities. If they can do it, so we can,” Palmes said.

PWD development in the Philippines does not rely on only one sector or institution; it should include the sector’s knowledge and ability to stand for their rights, and the government’s acknowledgement that PWDs are an integral part of the society by creating laws and giving them the better access to social services. If one component is gone, then upholding sector’s interests will be less heard and seen.

“For my fellow PWDs, go out and vote. We can lose some of our physical abilities but we can never disregard the fact that we are all Filipinos,” the 44-year old broadcaster said. –