Full disclosure: I was one of the judges on the panel. It was my first introduction to the organization, and I was deeply honored to be a part of it.
To give you a peek behind the curtains and give you more information about what they do, I talked to NOVEL, the other judges, and the participants about the event.
What is NOVEL? What does it do?
Maria Victoria Lucio, NOVEL president: NOVEL is an organization by/for women and girls with disabilities particularly those with visual impairment. Initially organized in October 2012 and formally launched on April 20, 2013. It became a legal entity on May 31, 2013.
NOVEL’s motivations, principles, goals and actions are grounded on [a] human rights-based approach that is strongly anchored on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
NOVEL is about supporting the empowerment of women and girls with disabilities, building coalitions with cross-disability and women’s movements, and promoting disability-inclusive development (DID).
How did this competition come about?
Maria: This essay writing contest was done in celebration of the 2021 White Cane Safety Day, which the sector of persons with visual impairment and its advocates have been celebrating for 32 years.
This is an annual activity done by virtue of Republic Act No. 6759, “An Act Declaring August One of Each Year as White Cane Safety Day in the Philippines and for other Purposes.” This law recognizes [the] white cane as a symbol of mobility and independence of persons who are blind and with low vision. It serves as a reminder of the role of the society to reach out, care and accord due respect to persons with visual impairment. Furthermost, it promotes the overall well-being of persons who are blind and with low vision.
Annually, the members of the White Cane Inter-Agency Committee, [led] by the Department of Education (DepEd) and organizations of/for persons with visual impairment, [work] together to prepare various activities for the promotion of the rights and dignity of persons who are blind and with low vision.
[These include] an employment forum, a program showcasing their talents and skills, a demonstration of the different assistive devices or technologies that they used, as well as contests like braille reading and writing, extemporaneous speech and singing contests. These had been good ways to show society that persons with disabilities, particularly those with visual impairment, are no longer “objects” of charity but “subjects” with rights and equal space and opportunities in society.
However, NOVEL observed that these activities no longer fit our needs and situation. As an organization, we want activities that are more relevant and would leave a lasting impact. These are what we were trying to do during our term as the lead organization of persons with disabilities (OPD) and co-chair of the White Cane Inter-Agency Committee.
Nonetheless, there were many challenges that we experienced in working with the lead agency. As observed, the quality of the celebration is retrogressive especially at this time of pandemic. A decade ago, the celebration was one week and the preparation started in the first quarter of the year with many organizations of/for persons with visual impairment involved. Now, the celebration days were compressed; the preparation started in the second quarter with only few organizations invited in the preparatory meetings and limited virtual participants in the event.
We had enough! We need change! We want progress; we want activities with sense and quality that are also impactful and participatory across the country.
These motivated us to host an essay writing contest with a theme anchored [to] this year’s celebration, “Empowerment and Equal Opportunity: Together We Can Create An Inclusive World For Persons with Visual Impairment.” This is a good platform to visibilize persons with visual impairment through making their voices heard on significant issues concerning them through writing as well as recognizing their abilities and dismantling the negative perceptions towards them.
What are your thoughts on the competition and the entries?
Shiela May Aggarao, NOVEL secretary: The competition captured a lot of things. [It] expose[d] the daily barriers faced by people with visual impairment inside and out of their homes, proposed solutions to these problems, utilized the power of social media to connect persons with visual impairment across the country, build networks, propagate the advocacy, and call for collective action. The entries became a repository of the sector’s true accounts of what is really happening and what they really want in their lives and for the government and the public to do.
All of the 28 entries gave a message of hope and the need for change. But [they did not frame people with] visual impairment [as] objects of pity and charity, [or that] having an impairment is an abnormality [that] must be fixed in order to function in society.
John Paul Cruz, judge: The contest and its entries gave a good spin on an essay competition; they showed what each of us can do, not what we cannot do with our diverse abilities. They showed what the persons who are blind and with low vision could see using words.
Here’s a question for Fermin. How did you find out about the competition?
I studied in Philippine National School for the Blind (PNSB) from Grade 1 up to Grade 10. PNSB has various activities to help enhance the skills and guide the career path of students who are blind and with low vision. And these are the reasons why I discovered who and what I want to be in the future.
I found out about the competition because of my PNSB PE teacher. She doesn’t have any impairment. Every time we have a class with her, she keeps telling and motivating the students to continue and always stay positive in life no matter what happens.
It was July 4, [the] last week of our school year, [when] she sent the registration form [to] our group chat. She said that we should join because it will add an experience to us, as a student.
Why did you choose to write your essay? What was your writing process like?
At first, I was really hesitant because I already know that there will be many people who are blind and with low vision who will be joining in this kind of competition. But because of the support of my family and friends, I decided to fill out the registration form and give it a try. Most importantly, I want to share with everyone about the accessible world that I am dreaming [of] for persons with visual impairment like me.
After the orientation for all participants, I was still thinking about how I should start my essay. I reached the point where I only have two days before the submission of entries, and that is the time that I decided to create my article.
I experienced a lot of challenges while writing my essay like heavy rain. The rain affects my internet connection. At that time, I just relied on [cloud-based services] because I don’t have MS Office [software]. A brownout also followed but still, I did my best to finish it.
The reasons why I decided to continue in this contest by NOVEL Philippines are because I want to prove to myself that I can do and finish any task that I accepted, to enhance my writing skills, to collect a memorable experiences that I can use to improve myself, to give awareness to the community that a person with visual impairment can do what persons without disability can [also do] because we are part of our society, part of human diversity. Above all, to give information to my fellows on the rights and privileges and accessible world that we should have.
The process of my writing is that I remembered the time where I experienced a lot of discriminations as a person who is blind like when I am in public places, at the universities and other schools who rejected me because of my visual impairment, the organizations outside the school [that did not accept me] because they thought that I cannot do what they are doing, etc. These motivated me to finish my essay.
What was it like for you to win?
Fermin: To be honest, I didn’t expect that I would win because there were many participants across the country. I was invited by NOVEL on their announcement of winners last Aug. 4, 2021, [in a] webisode of InkluNasyon (an online talk show that tackles the issues of persons with disabilities) as a contestant who would share the key message of my essay entry. But to my surprise, I was declared the first placer.
Winning for me validates my capacity, through my writing skills, to participate in such an advocacy campaign and to contribute to raising awareness on how to build an inclusive world for persons with visual impairment.
I want to grab this opportunity to thank NOVEL Philippines and Preen.ph because you gave us this kind of moment to show our skills in writing and most importantly, to present the characteristics of an inclusive world for persons with visual impairment that we must have in our country.
What are the challenges that people with visual impairment face that you want to bring attention to?
Maria: Persons with visual impairment are experiencing various barriers that [hinder] their full, equal and effective participation in society. These are: social/attitudinal, physical environment, information and communication, and institutional/policy.
Attitudinal/social barrier: Oftentimes, persons with visual impairment are victims of public ridicule and vilification. They receive negative remarks like they are useless, helpless and hopeless, asexual, and have no right to build a family. They are devalued. They internalize these remarks and these result in having a low self-esteem.
Physical environment: The purpose of white cane is for travelers with visual impairment to travel safely and independently. It serves as an extension of a person with visual impairment’s arm or hand, enabling them to navigate the surroundings on tactile clues and identify whether there are tripping hazards such as cracks, poles, etc.
However, most of them cannot travel safely and independently using white cane because there are uneven roads, open drains, reckless drivers, not all the paths have tactile flooring, etc. Aside from their sense of touch (through using a white cane), they also rely on their sense of hearing while traveling. Having electronic vehicles on the road would make them feel unsafe especially those persons who are blind and with severe low vision because they cannot detect if there are vehicles coming. Persons with low vision rely on high contrast colors and white/yellow line markers in cross-walking or going up/down the stairs but not all floorings have such accessibility features.
Information and communication: Persons with visual impairment have different access needs. Some persons who are blind prefer braille as an assistive device and braille handouts. Some persons who are blind and with low vision prefer to use a computer with a screen reader. They can access digital information if a website has accessibility features, with alternative text (it allows screen readers to describe the image), while some with low vision prefer a screen magnifier and large print material. However, their needs are not always addressed.
Institutional/policy: There are laws or policies and practices and procedures that are discriminatory or non-compliant with the existing laws. Republic Act No. 7277, Chapter 1, Section 32 declares that no entity, whether public or private, shall discriminate against a qualified person with disability by reason of disability in regard to job application procedures.
However, there are cases where applicants who are blind or with low vision are not accepted on the job despite their qualifications because they have impairment. There are individuals and organizations of persons with visual impairment who are denied opening a bank account because they have impairment. As a result, organizations are deprived from funding opportunities both local and international. Likewise, persons with disabilities cannot enjoy the benefits of enrolling [to] digital banking, especially [in this] pandemic where all transactions [shifted online].
What can our readers do to help people with visual impairment?
Maria: Keep an open mind. Don’t pity us. Feel free to talk or approach us. That should be a good start.
Gina Rose Balanlay, NOVEL treasurer: Help us spread the message that persons who are blind and with low vision are part of humanity and diversity. We are not a burden on our society. With the provision of assistive devices or technologies and support services as well as accessible facilities, programs and services, we can be active and contributory members of society.
Is there any message you want to impart to our readers?
Fermin: Every time that you have seen a person walking in public places with their white cane, don’t think that they are different or deviant. They can also travel or go around using their white cane, their assistive device. Don’t ask them questions like “How will you be able to eat your food, how will you be able to take a shower, do you have a decent job, etc.” Don’t ask them those questions because with assistive devices or technologies, providing description from people around them or with support services, they can 100% do what other persons without disability do to be successful. Together, let’s continue creating an inclusive world for persons with visual impairment through empowerment and equal opportunities.
April Mathew Abella, second-place winner: Tayong lahat ay may kinahaharap na isyu at mga problema. Ngunit ang sektor ng may kapansanan ay isa lamang sa mga sektor sa lipunan na naghahanap ng patuloy na progreso sa ating bansa; sector na kung saan ay patuloy pa rin ang paghahanap ng solusyon sa mga problema. Mensahe ko lamang po sa lahat lalo na sa mga taong may kapansanan, ’wag tayong mawalan ng pag-asa. Continue to fight for our rights and dignity as individuals. ’Wag tayong titigil na isulong sa ating bansa at sa mundo ang mga programa para sa ating ikauunlad.
Nawa’y ang mga sanaysay na itatampok sa araw na ito ay makapagbibigay inspirasyon at gabay sa mga tao at sa mga kinauukulan upang mas magkaroon pa ng malawak at maigting na programa na makatutulong sa lahat lalo na sa mga may kapansanan.