Notes from the Field

Philippines Mobilizes for a Disability-Inclusive 2016 Presidential Election

April 23, 2014

Asia Foundation 60th anniversary seriesIn his 4th State of the Nation Address in June 2013, Philippine President Aquino praised a 30-year-old Makati resident Nino Aguirre who has no legs, but had laboriously climbed four floors to reach his polling station and cast his vote in the May 2013 midterm elections. While Mr. Aguirre’s feat demonstrated laudable – even heroic – devotion to democracy, it also highlights the appalling and unnecessary challenges faced by persons with disabilities (PWDs) in fully participating in the democratic process.

Makati, a sub-city of Manila, has over 500,000 residents and is the richest community in the Philippines, yet despite a 2012 Commission on Elections (COMELEC) Resolution (No. 9485) mandating accessible polling stations, there were none in Makati. Somewhere along the way something was lost either in the transition of COMELEC personnel or in the translation of the resolution itself, and nobody even noticed. PWDs were once again overlooked or ignored.

One of the reasons the concerns of PWDs remain invisible is due to inaccurate estimates of their overall number. The Philippines doesn’t have a comprehensive or effective system of counting the total number of PWDs. For example, the 2010 government census puts the total number of PWDs at 1.44 million people, which is 1.57 percent of the population. But the World Health Organization states that on average PWDs make up 10 percent of the population, suggesting there is an apparent undercounting by almost 9 million.

Over the last two years, The Asia Foundation, with support from The Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), has been in the forefront of driving better participation in the upcoming elections through the Fully Abled Nation (FAN) initiative, a disability-inclusive elections program that increases participation of PWDs in the May 2013 elections and other democratic processes. Photo/Karl Grobl

Over the last two years, The Asia Foundation, with support from The Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), has been in the forefront of driving better participation in the upcoming elections through the Fully Abled Nation (FAN) initiative, a disability-inclusive elections program that increases participation of PWDs in the May 2013 elections and other democratic processes. Photo/Karl Grobl

The gains and challenges faced by PWDs is captured in a new publication, “The Right to Vote: Filipinos with Disabilities and the 2013 Elections,” that launched on April 23 in Manila. Produced by media nonprofit VERA Files and The Asia Foundation with support from the Australian Government, the book examines the gains and setbacks of the COMELEC and its Inter-Agency and NGO Network on the Empowerment of PWDs and of civil society’s campaign to enable persons with disabilities to fully enjoy their right to suffrage. The publication is a culmination of the first phase of Fully Abled Nation (FAN), a program to implement disability-inclusive elections.

A series of photos throughout the book show the experience of PWDs in the 2012 special voters registration for PWDs and in the May 13, 2013, midterm elections. The book also takes readers back to another COMELEC experiment, this time during the barangay (village) elections held on October 28 that year, which turned four malls into accessible polling places. In all three exercises, accessibility remained a major problem for PWDs. The book details how disability advocates stepped in to help fill the void and, more important, how PWDs themselves broke down barriers to their right to vote.

Key highlights from the book are:

On Sept. 25, 2007, the Philippines became a party to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability (UNCRPD), the first in Southeast Asia and the 23rd country in the world to do so. Even prior to signing the UNCRPD, the Philippines had already enacted Republic Act 7277, the Magna Carta for Disabled Persons, which affirms its commitment to the full participation and total integration of PWDs into mainstream society.

In May 2011, COMELEC issued Resolution 9220 that designated a National Day of Registration for PWDs. Former COMELEC Commissioner Rene Sarmiento, PWD champion and advocate, highlighted the importance of that day: “On that day, we honor our PWD voters as we highlight our shared efforts to ensure that no PWD gets left behind when it comes to their right to suffrage.”

On June 29, 2012, COMELEC Resolution No. 9485 established a set of defined rules and regulations for PWD voting and accessible polling places for the May 13, 2013, national and local elections. Unlike in developed countries that rely heavily on technology solutions to make the voting process more accessible, Resolution No. 9485 was a bare bones, yet ingenious approach. Its core strategy was anchored on ensuring that PWDs will not have to take the stairs and vote at the higher floors but instead vote in designated accessible polling centers. Without having to create new PWD precincts, the resolution allows PWDs’s ballots to be pulled out from their respective precincts ahead of time, filled out during voting hours by PWDs (or by assistors) at these accessible polling places, then brought back to be fed into voting machines at the close of voting.

It was the high hopes for this resolution that motivated stakeholders and partner organizations of Fully Abled Nation to embark on nationwide campaigns to mobilize PWDs to register and vote in the May 2013 elections. Organizations such as Cerebral Palsied Association of the Philippines, Link Center for the Deaf, VSO Bahaginan, the Philippine Alliance of Patient Organizations (PAPO) in collaboration with the Union of Local Authorities of the Philippines (ULAP), and the Foundation for Communications Initiative (FOCI) organized marathons, rock concerts, caravans, radio interviews, TV appearances, satellite registrations, and voter education campaigns to raise public awareness in support of PWD right to suffrage.

Election volunteers and officials assist 18-year-old Mayet, blind since birth, to register in May 2013 mid-term elections). Photo/Karl Grobl

Election volunteers and officials assist 18-year-old Mayet, blind since birth, to register in May 2013 mid-term elections). Photo/Karl Grobl

The promise of disability-inclusive elections was felt most in Cebu province. Under the Fully Abled Nation project, VSO Bahaginan piloted a “Volunteerism for Disability-Inclusive 2013 Elections” there. Working in the cities of Cebu, Mandaue, Lapu-Lapu, Talisay, Carcar, Danao, Toledo, and Bogo, and the municipalities of Bantayan and Cordova, it advocated for the establishment of PWD-friendly sites and precincts, and mobilized volunteers to increase PWD electoral participation through strengthening of disability-peoples organizations (DPOs) and integration of PWD-inclusive Volunteer Management Systems.

In March 2012, prior to the special registration days for PWDs and promulgation of Resolution 9485, there were 511 registered PWD voters in Cebu province. By February 2013, there were 12,608 registered and updated PWD voters, 38 percent of whom came from VSO Bahaginan’s pilot sites. Thus, when the COMELEC designated only two areas in Dasmarinas, Cavite as pilot accessible polling places, the DPOs and some PWD leaders were disappointed in the watered-down implementation of the resolution.

On Feb. 15, 2013, Resolution 9485 was succeeded by Republic Act 10366, which authorizes the COMELEC to establish precincts assigned to accessible polling places exclusively for PWDs and senior citizens. Once these are in place, it is hoped that the upcoming presidential elections in 2016 will be in truth more disability-inclusive, and for citizens like Nino Aguirre, voting will be a breeze.

Maribel Buenaobra is The Asia Foundation’s director of Programs in the Philippines. She can be reached at mariaisabel.buenaobra@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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