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Comelec urged to step up efforts for voters with hearing disabilities

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By VERA Files

WHILE the registration in malls is becoming popular among persons with disabilities (PWDs), some of them find the poll services lacking.

Cousins Maricar Bernardo, 21, and Karen Yepez, 26, both persons with hearing disability, went to SM City San Lazaro to register on Friday.

Both first-time registrants, they were prioritized through the PWD express lanes. In filling out the forms, however, they had to be assisted by Karen’s sister, Carla.

Mabilis iyong process, iyon nga lang kailangan i-guide sila. Dapat may kasama sila kasi ‘di sila magkaka-intindihan nu’ng taga-Comelec (The process was fast though they had to be guided. They should be accompanied because they would not be understood by the Comelec personnel),” Carla said.

All three were not aware that the Commission on Elections had dedicated a help desk for persons who are hard of hearing. It was located outside the registration area’s fences.

Carla, who only knew about it after they were done registering, said it should have been more visible. “Meron naman pala pero bakit nasa labas? Sana nilagay nila sa loob. (They had a helpdesk but why is it located outside? They should have put it inside the registration area).”

Some election assistants and officers of the Comelec weren’t aware either.

Manila district 2 election officer Arnulfo Aguilar admitted he had no idea that there were sign language interpreters, even after the registration had ended.

Kung alam ko lang sana baka mas marami pa kaming PWD na narehistro, (Had I known, we probably would have been able to register more PWDs),” he said.

Out of 1,283 registrants from Manila’s districts 1 to 4, only 12 are PWDs. In SM Manila, there were 15 PWDs who registered out of 251 from district 5.

Lawyer Jessica Magbanua of Alyansa ng mga may Kapansanang Pinoy Foundation Inc. (AKAP-Pinoy) said there is lack of coordination within the Comelec in handling PWDs, especially in terms of provision of sign language interpreters.

“When I arrived, I asked Comelc personnel if they had provided SLIs just in case a deaf person wants to register. They said there were none,” Magbanua said.

But when she went around in her wheelchair, Magbanua saw two sign language interpreters who were writing in bold letters a signage that read “help desk for the Deaf.”

Magbanua, who was among the organizers of the last year’s satellite registrations, said Comelec should have put up signages for those with hearing disability.

For the third of the series of metro-wide mall registrations in July, Comelec has tapped the Link Center for the Deaf (Link). Special education teachers from the Miriam College-Southeast Asian Institute for the Deaf (MC-SAID) were deployed across SM malls.

Sarah Bolano, MC-SAID special education teacher, said Comelec officials were unaware that sign language interpreters were asked to help.

She said she had been passed on from one security guard to another until they were finally given space beside the medical assistance corner.

“I think they weren’t briefed about this since they didn’t really know where to put us. Although that’s weird because Comelec partnered with Link,” another sign language interpreter Pam Fabros said.

Bolano said Comelec should include in their TV broadcast announcements that there are interpreters during registration.

“Of course, deaf people would think, how are we going to communicate?” she added.

In Quezon City, Comelec also provided two sign language interpreters, which accommodated at least three deaf people.

More than a thousand Quezon City residents participated in the satellite registration in SM North Edsa. Twelve PWDs from three districts availed of the mall services.

Link Center interpreter Kat Agustin said hiring interpreters to make the registration accessible to the deaf is good, but the event should have been announced earlier.

But National Council on Disability Affairs (NCDA) Executive Director Carmen Zubiaga said the event was well-publicized through television and social media.

Voting in malls convenient

For those who made it to the malls, some found the registration efficient.

Wheelchair-user Josefina Reyes, 83, said the process was convenient though she wished she had known the requirements beforehand. She was assisted by a PWD employee of the city social welfare department.

Viany Manuel, who has rheumatoid arthritis, said poll personnel filled out the forms for him and all he had to do was to sign them.

Sa part ko ngayon, ‘di hamak na mas madali dito. Kung doon ako sa school, hindi na ako magpaparegister (In my part, it is much easier here. If I were to do it in a school, I won’t register,)” he said.

Some of the voters like Manuel would like the elections to be held in malls.

Angelito Santos, 39, who has cerebral palsy, went to the satellite registration in SM Marikina to accomplish the Accessible Polling Places (APP) form to secure a better voting place next year.

Santos is a registered voter of Barangka, Marikina. In 2013, he experienced difficulty going to his precinct because it was located on the third floor of the elementary school.

Kailangan pa naming umakyat sa taas. Ayaw ibaba yung balota namin. Bawal daw (We have to climb upstairs in order to vote. They refused to bring our ballots down. They said it’s not allowed),” he said.

Michael Fojas of Comelec-Marikina said they’ve already coordinated with officials of some barangays, teachers and the Department of Education to address accessibility problems.

AKAP Pinoy’s Magbanua, however, said she has reservations about holding the voting in malls, adding that canvassing must be held in a separate place to ensure the integrity of the results.

Nasaan na iyong secrecy of the ballot pag ganyan ang nangyari (What happens to the secrecy of the ballot should that happen?)” she asked.

For Zubiaga, voting in mall is a good idea as malls have “perfect” accessibility.

“We have a law authorizing Comelec to assign accessible polling places for PWDs and older persons. They should designate accessible polling places in the area, even if it’s not in SM,” she said.

According to Republic Act No. 10366 “the State shall design systems and procedures that will enable persons with disabilities and senior citizens to register and vote by themselves.” – Maria Feona Imperial, Yvette B. Morales, Verlie Q. Retulin

(The authors are University of the Philippines students writing for VERA Files as part of their internship.)