A silhouette of person with a face mask on a wheelchair is flanked by hands in a gesture offering assistance.
On Mar. 24, The Department of Health confirmed a total of 552 COVID-19 cases in the Philippines. The same day, the Senate and the House of Representatives approved Senate Bill No. 1418 that would allow Pres. Rodrigo Duterte “for a limited period and subject to restrictions, to exercise powers necessary and proper to carry out the declared national policy.” Upon the President’s approval, the bill could grant emergency cash assistance worth P5,000 to P8,000 to 18 million low-income households, depending on the prevailing minimum wage in the region.
According to Philippine Alliance of Women with Disabilities (PaWiD) founding member Gina Rose Balanlay, the majority of Persons with Disabilities belong to poor households. Some are wage earners—no work, no pay—such as persons with visual impairment who work as massage therapists. Now that malls and other establishments are closed due to the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ), many don’t have the capacity to stock their basic supplies for a longer period. Financial assistance is just one of the many concerns Persons with Disabilities action groups are asking the government to address as they demand equal accessibility to crisis aid and response.
Stories under the enhanced community quarantine
The Commission on Human Rights Economic Social and Cultural Rights (CHR ESCR) Center and the Center for Gender Equality and Women’s Human Rights of the Commission on Human Rights (CGEWHR) have been asking Persons with Disabilities what issues they are currently facing and channeling these to concerned LGUs and barangays. In addition, The Philippine Coalition on UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) is also conducting a survey among Persons with Disabilities and submitting weekly data to CHR ESCR. Lead convenor of the coalition Dr. Benjamin Bernandino, with members Shiela May Aggarao and Balanlay, shared some of the stories they’ve collected.
“The barangay did not give us goods,” said a 39-year-old deaf woman with a 70-year-old deaf mother and 36-year-old deaf brother from Zone 122 San Roque, Pasay City. A man with visual impairment from Caloocan added, “Sana kung ano ang binibigay ng gobyerno meron din sana kaming mga Persons with Disabilities. Kailangan din namin ng pagkain.” Balanlay, who is also the Treasurer of Nationwide Organization of Visually Impaired Empowered Ladies (NOVEL), says that local government units (LGUs) have no standard procedures for the implementation of the ECQ and distribution of aid. Some residents are asked to prove they’re registered voters before being given relief goods. Some are provided food packs and alcohol with a quarantine pass the LGU didn’t provide guidelines for.
Access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene is also a problem. A deafblind woman from Norzagaray, Bulacan said that she needs water supply for all-around use. She shared, “Igib po lahat mga tao dito.” Another account was from a 49-year-old man who is a wheelchair user with two children from Valenzuela City. “I need regular na supply ng tubig dahil walang tulo ng tubig sa gripo,” he said.
Since the lack of access to medicine is rooted in poverty, very few have enough stock for several days. When asked about the assistance she needed, a 53-year-old married deaf woman from Baguio City answered, “Assistance to buy medicine. But [I] can’t walk to the barangay hall because the barangay is too far from my place.”
Persons with mobility impairment have a hard time receiving aid without access to transportation. Among them is a 40-year-old man from Binangonan, Rizal who said, “Walang natanggap na kahit na ano. Malayo ang bahay ko sa barangay, walang masakyan, taong pilay po ako, mas mahirap maglakad ng malayo.” The need for personal assistance as well as rehabilitation services and treatment is more pressing when not everyone can call on care providers due to social distancing and ECQ policies.
One of the founders of AcessiWheels (a ride-sharing service more accessible to Persons with Disabilities) said, “A lot of chronic patients request rides from us. As much as we want to help everyone, kulang ang volunteer drivers na meron kami so nagrereach out pa kami for drivers with private cars.” They post passenger details in a trip tracker for those willing to help.
Inadequate internet connection at home is also a complication under the EQC. There’s a case with an owner of a massage therapist business unable to comply with the Department of Labor and Employment’s (DOLE) policy of submitting a list of employees so as to provide benefits because he had no WiFi access.
“During health crisis, access to information is crucial as it is directly linked to the ability of individuals and families to adopt preventive measures, conduct risk mitigation and [get] access to health and other support services,” stated Atty. Krissi Shaffina Twyla A. Rubin, officer-in-charge of CGEWHR. Information on COVID-19 is often inaccessible to Persons with Disabilities particularly to those with sensory and intellectual impairments. Noticeably, there has been a lack of sign language interpreting for COVID-19-related press conferences and information campaign materials. “The absence of interpreters impact access to information and increase the risk of the deaf community to the COVID-virus,” she adds. For one deaf woman, barangay officials need to learn basic sign language to assist deaf persons.
This problem extends to the capacity of frontliners, whether in healthcare facilities or checkpoints, to communicate to Persons with Disabilities particularly to those with sensory and intellectual impairment. Board member of the Filipino Sign Language Advocacy Coop (FSLAC) Maria Rowena Rivera shared the story of a deaf man on a street in Manila was caught by the Department of Social Welfare and Development under the EQC. “But he was assaulted by a group of local officials and a volunteer. That’s how he became [a victim of] trauma and violence.” she added.
Women and children with disabilities are facing multiple burdens under the ECQ. A pregnant woman with visual impairment who is a Person with Disability Focal Person in Alitagrag, Batangas admits, “Malaki ang epekto sa akin kasi aside from having visual impairment, pregnant po ako now, hindi makapagpacheck up kasi hindi makalabas sa bahay. Doble ang takot kasi limitado lang ang nakikita at hindi maiwasan mapahawak sa mga bagay. Apektado din financially kasi walang work pati asawa ko.”
Another account is from a mother with psychosocial disability and with children with intellectual disabilities (specifically with autism, ADHD and diagnosed with anxiety). “I needed to manage the mental health of the kids. Buryong is real. Tumaas ang anxiety ko but since I have a support group, I get to manage very well at a time like this. Kailagan kong imanage ang emotional health ko for my children kasi psychosocial yung disability ko,” she said.
Policies to adapt and the groups who fill in the gaps
The Philippine Coalition on UNCRPD observed that while some Persons with Disabilities received services from barangay, those were not enough for one-week consumption. Despite the need to stay healthy and keep their environment clean, the food distributed lacked nutrition and health supplies were scarcely provided. Furthermore, there were no hygiene kits for women.
So far our COVID policies are not compliant with UNCRPD Article 11 which states, “Situations of risk and humanitarian emergencies declared that governments need to ensure that their emergency preparedness plans consider the unique needs of Persons with Disabilities.” They should be inclusive for all Filipinos.
Atty. Rubin reiterated that the implementation of the Filipino Sign Language (FSL) Law or Republic Act No. 11106 can help ensure access to information, Barangay-level government support, consultations, community engagement and consideration of women’s needs for the Deaf.
Although an inset sign language interpreter has been added to state-owned PTV 4, there is still much work to do. To fill in the gap, groups like the FSL Access Team Covid-19 (FSLACT4COVID19) created a pool of volunteers providing FSL interpretation of daily newscasts and important press conferences. FSLACT4COVID19 core team member and president of Philippine Federation of the Deaf Carolyn Dagani emphasized the need to recognize the Human Rights based language link in the correct term “Persons with Disabilities.” The government should be on the forefront of raising awareness and removing signs with “PWD” written on them.
The CGEWHR partnered with WDARE to continue conducting the Community Based Peer Monitoring of Access to Services of Women with Disabilities. By documenting and demanding accountability together, it becomes an empowering process. CGEWHR also connects with nonprofit organizations able to provide the needs of women with disabilities. A prime example is a project with Power in Her Story where they are currently repacking care packages for 200 Persons with Disabilities families in Holy Spirit. As of writing, it is in the process of coordinating with FSLACT4COVID19.
You can show your support by volunteering for Persons with Disabilities action groups or through these steps:
Remind LGU and barangay officials to include all Persons with Disabilities to include in the distribution of relief goods and handouts regardless if they are registered voter or indigent, after all, most people do not have work now and need support.
Remind DOLE to include employees with disabilities on the employment benefits.
Help AccessiWheels look for volunteer drivers to send patients with disabilities to the hospitals who are scheduled for dialysis etc.
Help provide relief goods for Persons with Disabilities. Based on a survey conducted, most Persons with Disabilities need sufficient food for their families, hygiene kits for women, vitamins like C and B as well as medicine for diabetes and body spasm, face mask and disinfectants.
Persons with Disabilities are often forgotten in times of crises but you can lend a hand while we hope for the government to step up. Here’s Balanlay’s request for Pres. Duterte: “Make an announcement to address the needs of specific vulnerable groups like senior citizens and Persons with Disabilities.”