An Accessibility Conundrum in the Philippines
January 24, 2024
The question had long confounded proponents of disability inclusion in the Philippines. Laws had been passed and budgets were in place, but public schools in the Philippines remained stubbornly inaccessible to people with disabilities. Everywhere, school buildings with wheelchair-blocking staircases, inaccessible restrooms, and no tactile cues for the blind continued to thwart the full access and participation of a substantial part of the population.
Every Filipino will use a public-school building at some time in their life. Aside from their obvious role in public education, public schools in the Philippines serve as polling places in elections, emergency evacuation centers, and venues for community events. These vital public spaces must be accessible to the entire public, regardless of age or disability.
This is the story of how advocates solved a long-standing policy puzzle by identifying a strategic reform to unlock the implementation of accessibility features in Philippine public schools.
Getting the money
In 2020, The Asia Foundation’s Coalitions for Change program supported a local coalition, Advocates of Inclusion, to study and address the gaps in school accessibility policy. The investigation began with conversations with experts, advocates, and interest groups in the disability sector. Their concerns clearly converged on a principal problem: budgets for the construction and repair of accessible facilities.
Advocates of Inclusion worked for the insertion of new line item, “repair, rehabilitation, and construction of access facilities such as ramps, accessible toilets, pathways, and tactile paving,” in the Basic Education Facilities Fund of the Department of Education (DepEd). The coalition worked with allies in the Senate who successfully added the new provisions to DepEd’s 2021 budget. For the first time in decades, DepEd could now use its budget to build and repair access facilities in public school buildings.
This should have marked the triumphant conclusion to the story—DepEd now had the budget to address the accessibility needs of public schools—but simply providing the funds was not enough. Within DepEd there were implementation policies that needed to be updated before the new monies could be put to use.
Getting things built
Digging deeper into the department’s spending policies, the coalition turned its attention to the National School Building Inventory (NSBI), an annual assessment of the physical condition of the nation’s public-school buildings. NSBI data is an important factor in deciding how the national infrastructure budget for schools will be spent, but the coalition discovered that the NSBI did not collect data on school accessibility. The DepEd could not plan or build access facilities in the schools because it did not monitor them.
The coalition made a straightforward proposal: add accessibility to the list of school facilities monitored by DepEd. The goal was not to disrupt the NSBI survey, but simply to add a few columns to it—a simple solution to a complex problem. The inauguration of a new presidential administration after the 2022 elections was an opportunity for change. A new undersecretary, who was a champion of mobility and school accessibility, presented the coalition with a golden opportunity to work with DepEd to update the NSBI. In March 2023, the coalition’s efforts materialized with the department’s release of an updated NSBI tool that included the accessibility features that the coalition had advocated. With the revised NSBI tool in place, the annual inventory of school buildings will now include data on accessibility.
Navigating the Philippines’ biggest bureaucracy was a challenge. Established procedures can make a government agency stubbornly resistant to change. But the coalition’s careful work to understand DepEd operations before suggesting tailored policy reforms made all the difference. The coalition’s success has shown that even the biggest bureaucracy can welcome change if it seamlessly integrates into existing systems and frameworks.
Sure enough, DepEd took ownership and institutionalized the reforms. In July 2023, the department released a policy that integrates accessibility into its multiyear guidelines for the use of the Basic Education Facilities Fund. This new policy weaves together the budget process and the NSBI with new implementation guidelines that highlight accessibility. The coalition hopes to see concrete results from these school accessibility reforms in 2024.
Thinking and working politically
It is fundamental to effective policy reform to first study the laws, policies, and interests that govern the existing state of play. With that understanding, advocates for reform of a government program or agency are better equipped to seek allies or reform champions within the bureaucracy, without whom their advocacy will often fall on deaf ears.
In the Philippines, where law and policy already mandated accessible public schools, persistent lack of progress in this arena prompted Advocates of Inclusion to make a careful study of the existing policy framework. In it they discovered a crucial gap, a lack of information, in the operationalization of these otherwise well-intended policies. With the advent of a new presidential administration, Advocates of Inclusion found allies in the bureaucracy to advance the carefully targeted policy reforms that they had crafted through study and analysis.
The value of these reforms will be measured by their fruits: more-inclusive schools that are accessible to every Filipino. Coalitions for Change and Advocates of Inclusion remain steadfast in their commitment to this goal.
Monique Angela Cadag is an assistant 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, not those of The Asia Foundation.
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