In an ideal world, persons with disability should have no problem casting their ballots during elections. In the Philippines, however, PWDs often face a number of hurdles, including voting in precincts located in upper floors of buildings without ramps or elevators.
The Commission on Elections released in January guidelines to help persons with disability vote in the upcoming May 2019 elections. But PWDs are not optimistic that the poll body’s instructions will be followed.
Emergency accessible polling places (EAPP) must be put up for PWDs, senior citizens and women who are at least six months pregnant who did not indicate that they would vote in accessible polling places (APP), Resolution No. 10486 states.
The resolution adds that the EAPP should ideally be on the ground floor of multistory voting centers and in single level voting centers that can only be accessed by steep inclines.
The COMELEC is likewise authorized to establish APPs, which are distinct from EAPPs, under Republic Act 10366. The law also allows voters in APPs to have assistors, as well as implements sensitivity programs for election officers, staff and accredited citizens’ arms.
Ron Gutierrez, executive director of ULAN (Upholding Life and Nature), secretariat of The Asia Foundation’s Fully Abled Nation PWD initiative, said out of 61.8 million registered voters for this year’s polls, 342,300 are PWDs and 8,076,306 are senior citizens.
However, he noted that only 30,936 PWDs and 211,427 senior citizens indicated that they would vote in APPs.
“These 240,000 or so voters are assured of voting on the ground floor,” said Gutierrez, who was part of the committee that drafted Resolution No. 10486.
“But this also means there are 311,364 PWDs and 7,864,879 senior citizens who have no guarantee that they will vote on the ground floor,” he added. “And most likely, given the numbers, if they’re voting in Metro Manila, they will be voting in multilevel centers.”
Not accessible enough
Part of the reason for the few number of voters availing APPs is that they don’t think it is that convenient.
“Ang reasoning nila is, ‘If we’re in a polling place where everybody else is a person with disability or senior citizen, then we lose our preferential treatment,’” he said.
Gutierrez also said that just getting to the voting centers can be challenging enough for PWDs.
PWDs outside Metro Manila or in remote areas who have to ride a jeepney to the polling center face limited and crowded vehicles which sometimes even bypass them, he said.
Gutierrez added that non-PWD voters complain about the special treatment given to PWDs and senior citizens.
Despite the COMELEC’s latest resolution, the government agency tasked with formulating PWD-centered policies said it isn’t optimistic that the 2019 elections will be accessible.
“Parang wala tayong nakikita na ginagawa ng mga election officers at the local government unit and even yung mga precinct na sinasabi natin na at least gawan nila ng reasonable accommodation yung mga hindi accessible na lugar,” National Council on Disability Affairs Officer-in-Charge Carmen Zubiaga said.
“Siguro mga 95 percent ng mga public school, which is being used as voting centers, are not accessible,” she said. “May nakita ka na bang school na may elevator, na may ramp from the ground floor to the highest floor? Wala.”
Right to assistance
Zubiaga said PWDs must remember that they are not only entitled to physically accessible polling places, but also to adequate assistance from election staff and accredited citizens’ arms.
“Like kung blind ka, you should be allowed with an assistor of your choice to assist you during the filling out of ballots,” she said. “And dun sa mga deaf, at least if they want to ask something, meron dapat silang malalapitan na magsa-sign language or dapat may disability assistance desk within the precinct.”
Meanwhile, Gutierrez said PWDs have the same voting rights as everybody else, along with the right to be respected in voting centers.
“For PWDs with non-manifest disabilities, they might need to bring their IDs or some certification that they have this disability,” he said.
Gutierrez also said PWDs have the right to feed their ballot into the vote-counting machine, even though it might mean climbing up stairs.
“Yung sanctity ng ballot mo is important,” he said. “If you think na maco-compromise ‘yan sa pagdadala-dala, then you can insist that, ‘I will vote in my regular polling place, kahit na third floor pa ‘yan or fourth floor.’”
However, Zubiaga said election staff should meet PWDs halfway and put a ballot box at the ground floor for all voters with disabilities.
“Talagang gusto mong makaboto, gagapang ka para makaboto,” she added. “Parang pagdating ng eleksyon, lahat ng sinasabi natin, nababale-wala because of people who are not involved.”
Besides Election Day issues, Gutierrez noted how PWD concerns were not really tackled in this year’s campaign.
“It’s a shame because they’re among the most vulnerable sectors in society,” he said. “For example, you are a 4Ps recipient and you have a child or a relative who is also a person with disability, so does that count as an additional allowance?”
4P stands for the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program, government’s conditional cash transfer program aimed at eradicating extreme poverty through food and school allowances for children.
Gutierrez added that jobs for PWDs is another major issue that candidates should discuss. He said there is a wrong perception that PWDs ask for dole-outs when what they want is the means to earn an income.
He said PWDs always strive to be part of the conversation before, during and after the elections.
“The fact that they recognize the sector, hindi sila invisible, is already an important achievement for them,” he said. “Kasi ang problem is that they are always at the fringes, tapos invisible sila parang they’re kept under the rug.”