Philippines Marks First Disability-Inclusive Elections
May 25, 2016
The May 9 Philippine election not only set a new record for voter turnout, it also marked the first time that Republic Act 10366 – which mandates that polling stations be fully accessible for people with disabilities (PWDs) – was implemented in full. In his speech during the proclamation of senators-elect, the Philippine Commission on Elections (COMELEC) chair cited that there were over 300,000 people with disabilities and senior citizens who were able to vote at the ground floors of voting centers in the elections. He also mentioned the efforts of the COMELEC in making the voting process accessible and convenient for PWDs.
In his 4th State of the Nation Address, President Aquino recalled a moment of great irony in Philippine democracy, when Nino Aguirre, who has no legs and is in a wheelchair, had to climb four floors to reach his polling station and cast his vote in 2013 midterm elections. Fortunately, as a result of years of advocacy work, the 2016 elections witnessed dramatic improvements.
Ahead of election day, COMELEC set up over 5,000 accessible polling places (APPs) across the country. This is a significant milestone for the disability sector and advocates – in 2013, there were only two assigned APPs for PWDs and senior citizen voters in the entire country. In 2013, President Aquino signed Republic Act 10366, authorizing COMELEC to establish APPs for persons with disability and senior citizens in preparation for presidential elections. Since 2011, The Asia Foundation and Australian Aid have been working to increasing the participation of people with disabilities in electoral and democratic process through the Fully Abled Nation (FAN) project (read more about FAN here.)
In addition to the 5,000 PWD-accessible polling stations, COMELEC introduced in this election new Emergency Accessible Polling Places (EAPPs) in over 250 polling stations where voting took place in multi-level buildings. EAPPs are regular polling places that feature an accessible room on the ground floor in case PWDs, senior citizens, and heavily pregnant women who may have not registered at a designed accessible polling place come there on election day instead.
This year’s election also saw unprecedented gains in incorporating sign language interpretation during the presidential and vice presidential debates spearheaded by the COMELEC. This is a milestone for the deaf community, and even for the Philippine media where sign language interpretation is not traditionally used, despite laws that say television stations must provide sign language insets.
Beyond addressing the physical barriers to accessibility on election day, FAN, in partnership with COMELEC, also addressed the attitudinal and behavioral barriers
to PWD voting. To raise awareness, information on disability sensitivity was incorporated in the training sessions for some 300,000 Board of Election Inspectors (BEIs) and COMELEC personnel. Marvelous Jorda, a blind voter from Lapulapu City in Cebu province, which had 15,866 PWD registered voters, said he noticed a marked improvement among BEIs in being more knowledgeable and responsive to the needs of PWD voters. Like other PWD voters, Jorda was given priority and provided with assistance when he cast his vote at the ground floor of his voting center.
While there are certainly bright spots and major wins in these elections, it is also important to take note of challenges in the implementation of the accessibility law. After all, the success builds on the major setback of only having two established APPs in the 2013 elections, despite considerable efforts from disability advocates. One of the criticisms was the lack of enough time, especially at the field level, to prepare for the implementation of emergency accessible polling places, lack of sufficient information on the process, and the uneven application of APPs in all 36,000 voting centers. As a result, there were cases where people still had to be carried to upper floors in order to cast their vote.
Now, as the Philippines focuses on governing priorities under new leadership, the Fully Abled Nation is well-positioned to address broader aspects of governance and policy reforms in the country to help address equally important issues confronting PWDs such as access to economic opportunities, employment, and education. After all, ensuring long-term inclusion and empowerment of people with disabilities in the country goes far beyond election time.
Jerryll Reyes is senior program officer for The Asia Foundation in the Philippines. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funder.
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