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Insights and Analysis

Overcoming Disability Challenges in the Philippines

October 26, 2011

By Maria Isabel T. Buenaobra

Francia came to Tala Leprosarium from her hometown of Camarines Sur in Bicol region as a leprosy patient when she was 17 years old. Before she contracted leprosy, she had worked as a domestic helper. When I met Francia at Jose Rodriguez Memorial Hospital, a former leprosarium and grantee of The Asia Foundation’s partner organization, Give2Asia, Francia was teary-eyed as she related how she was orphaned at such a young age. Surprisingly, she said she was “glad” to have been a leprosy patient, as this was how she found her way to the leprosarium which has become home to her for almost 30 years. She now lives with other former leprosy patients in a Gawad Kalinga home in Tala, Caloocan. (Gawad Kalinga, which means “to give care” in Filipino, is a Philippine-based poverty alleviation and nation-building movement whose mission is to build homes for the poor.) Unmarried at 47 years old, she looks to her life as a patient assistant as a vocation.

As patient assistants at Jose Rodriguez Memorial Hospital, both Francia and her friend Caesar receive an allowance of a little under $10 a month from the hospital, $16 a month from the local government for their care-giving services, and a cash/food ration of $1.5 a day from the hospital. They support doctors and nurses with fellow leper patients and provide care and moral support to patients who have been shunned by society. Despite having been fully cured, Francia still bears the psychological scars from her disease. As a person with a disability, she yearns for the time when former leprosy patients can mingle and live with family members and be accepted fully by society.

For a long time, Filipinos with disabilities have suffered from discrimination. Their economic, social, and political rights have not been recognized and their access to educational opportunities and government services has been limited. Despite the passage of Republic Act 7277 or the Magna Carta for people with disabilities in 1991, which guarantees their right to employment, health, education, and auxiliary services, there are still significant barriers that keep them from fully participating in society, including the stigma surrounding a disability and society’s poor understanding of the abilities and aspirations of the disabled people. Often, they face a life that is segregated and debased, and many live in isolation and insecurity. Many recognize women with disabilities as all the more disadvantaged, experiencing exclusion on account of both their gender and their disability. Statistics on disability in the Philippines have not been properly established. There is still a heavy reliance on World Health Organization estimates that 10 percent of the country’s given population have some form of disability. The Department of Education claims that less than 3 percent of children and youth with disabilities have proper access to education, due to a lack of teachers trained to handle students with special needs and inadequate allocation of resources for educational materials in alternative formats to accommodate their needs.

According to the Philippine Association for Citizens with Developmental and Learning Disabilities, Inc. (PACDLD), there are about 4 million children and youth with disabilities, of whom only 2 percent go to school and 1 percent are properly diagnosed. Attempts to include persons with disability in national census surveys have not been successful for many reasons, including the hesitancy of families to declare that they have members with disabilities. The general lack of reliable data on disabilities also prevents government agencies from knowing the extent to which people with disabilities are included in mainstream social services such as education and healthcare.

Realizing this, The Asia Foundation since 2002 has undertaken several initiatives to raise public awareness of the rights of patients and persons with disability and mobilize public support for their rights. In our most current project, we are collaborating with disabled persons organizations, the Commission on Elections (COMELEC), the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV), and other NGOs to increase the awareness of the COMELEC and local governments to promote the participation of people with disabilities in elections and other democratic processes. In particular, the program, supported by AusAID, will provide recommendations to the COMELEC to increase disabled people’s access to registration sites and polling places in order to reduce or remove constraints they face to freely exercise their right to vote.

To get a more accurate picture of the experiences of people with disabilities in electoral exercises, the Foundation supported focus group discussions among persons with disabilities and representatives of disabled peoples organizations, the COMELEC, National Council on Disability Affairs and election-focused NGOs such as the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) and National Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL). Conducted by the Social Weather Stations, the FGDs were held in key cities (Quezon City, Laoag, and Puerto Princesa in Luzon, Iloilo in the Visayas, and Zamboanga City in Mindanao).

Persons with Disability focus group discussion

To get a more accurate picture of the experiences people with disabilities have in electoral exercises, The Asia Foundation supported focus group discussions among various stakeholders. Above, Bernadette Cariaga, who serves as the focal person for gender and disability at AusAID, presents at a focus group.

From the FGDs, we found out that few people with disabilities are registered voters; there is no monitoring system to determine if those who are registered exercised their right to vote; and their participation in the registration and election processes are not captured in past elections. The main factors that hinder people with disabilities from fully participating in elections are: disinterest in participating, poor communication,  limited access to polling places, the lack of an assistant or aide, and restrictions from family members.

Keeping in mind these challenges that prevent people with disabilities from exercising their rights, the Foundation and our partners will conduct an information campaign to mobilize them to register and vote in the coming elections. The campaign, tagged as “Fully Abled Nation,” will foster the collaboration among NGOs, local governments, the private sector, and the media to mobilize public support for disability-inclusive elections. More importantly, knowing that family members have an important role in recognizing that people with disabilities have the same right as everyone to take part in society, we will encourage parents with children who have disabilities to participate in the campaign for disability-inclusive development more broadly. Hopefully, by using electoral reform as an entry point, we can work toward the full participation and equal rights and opportunities for people with disabilities in the Philippines.

Maribel Buenaobra is The Asia Foundation’s director of Programs. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


  1. First i would like to commend the work of The Asia Foundation in trying to mainstream Persons with Disabilities. I am a volunteer through the Voluntary Service Overseas and I am pleased to say how fortunate I am, I was given the chance to work with PWD’s here in Guyana, South America. You are very right even here PWD’s are struggling inspite of the PWD’s Act which was signed into law on Nov.2, 2010. A lot of sesitization programme has been set in place but i am sure it will take another decade( hope not) for the ABLED people and the community as a whole understand.

  2. I am also an advocate on the implementation of PWD rights in Baguio City. During the 40th celebration of the National Disability Prevention and Rehabilitation Week, through our office, I organized a dialogue between the PWD sector, lgu and government agencies concerned with the implementation of the many and beautiful laws crafted by our country. In said dialogue, it was found out that PWDs in Baguio City still clamor for government action on the implementation of the accessibility law, the right to equal opportunity for employment, the right to medical /rehabilitation services, right to the 20% discount on transportation, etc. Representatives from the government sector responded that they will make efforts to include in their planning some strategies that would address pwd issues and concerns. On the outset, it can be concluded that one reason for the non-implementation of PWD rights is the lack of advocacy as far as the rights and privileges of PWds is concerned. I learned a lesson from your article on the plan to conduct an information campaign tagged as :Fully Abled Nation”. Such strategy can also be replicated in our city to make the rights real for PWDs as far as elecoral participation is concerned. I hope to receive more related researches/studies from you on the role of development communication for the realization of PWD rights. Thank you.

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