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PWD express lanes no match vs avalanche of last-minute registrants

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MANILA AND DAVAO CITY — Express lanes and priority treatment were of little help for persons with disabilities (PWDs) who turned up at election offices on the last week of voter registration.

Commission of Elections (Comelec) offices and satellite registration centers were swamped last week, causing logistical problems for its officers and inconveniencing some PWDs.

Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos trooped to registration centers to beat the October 31 deadline after the election body stood pat on its decision not to extend the period. Failure to register means they will be unable to vote in the May 2016 national election.

On October 26, five days before the deadline, Carolina Catacutan-Sam reactivated her registration at the Valenzuela City Hall. She has visual disability so she went with a sighted assitor, Jovy Apat, who was also intending to register.

“I was given priority since I am a PWD, but my companion was asked to fall in line,” she said in an email to VERA Files.

Catacutan-Sam also shared her experience at the Comelec to Fully Abled Nation, an organization dedicated to PWD concerns.

“I explained that Jovy is my companion and how can she leave me … but the election officer said that only PWDs are given priority and not the companion,” she added.

Catacutan-Sam finished early but she had to queue with her assistor, who was still not done with the process. “I fell in line with her and waited, making the priority privilege for PWDs null and void,” she said.

She had to go wherever her assistor went, so they both waded through the crowd of registrants.

“I just find it absurd to give priority to PWDs and ask the companion to take the normal route, leaving the PWD waiting in the wings,” she added.

While she found Comelec officers to be generally nice, Catacutan-Sam said this was not enough. “In fact, they’re very polite to PWDs,” she pointed out. “They just [need] a little bit of common sense, I guess.”

In some districts, registration was moved to air-conditioned malls, which proved more comfortable than local Comelec offices.

From October 28 to 31, for example, registration in Quezon City 3rd District was set at the Eastwood Mall.

Registrants from other districts, however, had no other option but to flock to the Quezon City Hall, where, according to a volunteer, some 15 PWDs registered on October 30, the second to the last day of registration.

Like the 3rd District of Quezon City, Davao City also transferred registration from the Comelec office to various malls in the city: NCC Mall Ma-a for 1st District voters; SM Lanang Premier for the 2nd District; and SM Annex, Ecoland, 3rd District.

Yet, the volume of registrants still caused problems, especially for PWDs.

Leonides Monteverde, who is 61 years old and uses a wheelchair, came in at 8 a.m. as soon as registration opened at SM Lanang Premiere. She was only accommodated at 2 p.m..

The six-hour wait was all for a transaction that was completed in 30 minutes.

Like Monteverde, 63-year-old Primitivo Sobejana, another PWD, also patiently endured a long wait.

“It’s not a problem for me. I understand. At least it is air-conditioned here inside the mall,” he said. “It’s better here than in the Comelec office.”

Express lanes in commercial and government establishments are a privilege provided for PWDs by Republic Act No. 9442, or the Magna Carta for persons with disabilities.

Comelec Resolution No. 9853, which governs the system of voter registration for the 2016 elections, is also explicit on express lanes for PWDs “in order to minimize queuing and avoid inconvenience in the processing of applications.”

A local Comelec officer in Davao City says PWDs are indeed given priority and are accommodated in express lanes, along with senior citizens and pregnant women. “The problem is, there are too many [people] coming in that’s why they still have to wait for their queue.”

Lawyer Esmeralda Ladra, director of the Planning Department of Comelec’s main office in Manila, said through SMS that the Commission has “tried our best to be accessible to all via our satellite registration in barangays and malls.”

The National Council on Disability Affairs (NCDA) for its part said that they have yet to receive complaints from PWDs about the conduct of voter registration.

NCDA Acting Executive Director Carmen Zubiaga said that PWDs “were given opportunities several times via satellite registrations.”

She added that PWD organizations had also been active in coordinating with some local government units and setting up their own registration schedules.

More than 52.3 million Filipinos have registered to vote, as of the July 20, 2015 hearing of the Comelec Election Registration Board (ERB).

Voter registration ran for over a year, from May 6, 2014 to last Saturday, Oct 31.(With John Frances C. Fuentes)