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Woman with cerebral palsy fights for PWDs’ right to vote

Charito Corazon Manglapus, 57, has cerebral palsy and moves around in a wheelchair. Voting for the first time in the 2010 elections, she  knows how difficult it is for persons with disability (PWDs) to exercise the right of suffrage.   In a high-pitched voice that sounds almost child-like, she said, “Karamihan ay mahirap ilabas. Katulad ko po, naka-wheelchair. ‘Yung iba nahihirapang umintindi (It’s difficult to bring most of them out of the house. Like me, they use a wheelchair. Others have difficulty in understanding).”   Manglapus heads the Cerebral Palsied Association of the Philippines (CPAP), which, along with the Persons with Disability Federation of San Mateo, Rizal, conducted last Saturday the seminar “Voters’ Registration Campaign for the 2013 Elections.” The seminar was held simultaneous with the special Commission on Elections registration for PWDs in the town.   CPAP registration records show that 112 PWDs went to the San Mateo Comelec office to attend the seminar, register for the first time and to have their voter’s registration reclassified and updated. Some went to have their biometrics validated.   The number was less than the 150 expected—but was a feat nonetheless—because it took not only the will on the part of the PWDs to be there, but also support from family members, since many of them needed assistance in moving around and filling up the forms.   In Manglapus’ case, someone had to hold the microphone while she spoke. Three family members also accompanied her, a common practice every time she attends meetings and speaking engagements.   A nonprofit organization, CPAP helps support the formulation and implementation of PWD policies and programs. It will organize a similar seminar in Valenzuela in April, San Juan in May and Marikina in June. The schedule for Pasig still has to be decided on.    Part of her group’s advocacy is to erase the negative misconception about PWDs, who dislike being pitied upon. They can also be productive members of society.   PWDs, according to Article 1 of the United Nations Convention on the rights of PWDs, include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments, which—in interaction with various barriers—may hinder them from full and effective participation on equal basis with others in society.   Dr. Monalisa Dungca, who specializes in pediatric rehabilitation, explains that cerebral palsy is a nonprogressive injury that affects the part of the brain that controls movement, posture and coordination. The injury happens in the developing brain anytime from conception and up to the age of two to four.   Cerebral palsy varies in severity and, in some cases, may result in seizures and visual and hearing impairment but is not hereditary and noncommunicable, Dungca said.    Her foster mother’s sister told Manglapus, who was adopted at birth, that her biological mother had worn a girdle during her pregnancy. This, she said, is the suspected cause of her cerebral palsy.   Manglapus experienced voting for the first time during the 2010 national elections and knows the challenges PWDs face in order to vote.   She had always wanted to vote during national and local elections, “but I had difficulties which made it hard for me to register and vote,” she said.   Her primary consideration then was the accessibility of registration centers and voting precincts and the inconvenience of people who would have to accompany her.   “Noong araw, hindi ko pa nakikita ‘yung karapatan ng may kapansanan (Back then I did not see that people with disability had rights), Manglapus added.    A recent Social Weather Stations survey of PWDs and Filipino adults shows a drop in the participation of PWDs in elections. The number of PWDs who voted decreased from 60 percent in 2007 to 54 percent in 2010. Those who registered but did not vote rose from 14 percent to 21 percent. PWDs of voting age but did not register also increased from 20 percent to 22 percent, the survey showed.   SWS found that among those who did not vote in the 2010 elections, 17 percent were ashamed to vote because of their disability, another 17 percent because of mobility problems, 16 percent because they were either sick or bedridden, and 10 percent because nobody would shade or read the ballot for them.   Other reasons include visual impairment, not wanting to vote, difficulty in reading and writing, being away on election day and disinterest in politics or elections.   Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) chairperson Henrietta de Villa said around nine million Filipinos are PWDs, and an estimated 2.6 million to three million are qualified to vote. As of January 2012, however, Comelec only has 742,228 registered PWDs on its records.   However, not many are able to because of the different and difficult circumstances they face. Indeed, Manglapus’ experience shows that for a PWD, the process of voting is not an easy one.   On Feb. 29, 2009, her mother accompanied her when she registered at the Comelec office in Marikina. The office was located at the second floor and had no provision for easy access, she said. So personnel of the Department of Social Welfare and Development carried her wheelchair to the second floor of the building.   That year, Manglapus said Comelec did not yet have the PWD registration form that would have identified her type of disability and the form of assistance she needed for the upcoming elections.   The modified form for PWDs would be promulgated as Minute Resolution No. 11-0708 only on July 5, 2011. Manglapus had to register again in the July 18-23, 2011 special registration for the reclassification of her voter’s registration and so she could fill up the new Comelec form for PWDs. The 2010 national elections was a “moment of truth” for Manglapus. She was assisted by her sister who shaded the ballot for her.   Manglapus learned to write and read having completed elementary school, although she did not finish her secondary education. However, because she requires a special table to write legibly and does so at a very slow pace, she asked her sister to help so as not to inconvenience other voters in Barangay Fortune Elementary School in Marikina.   “But I already had a list of my candidates before we went to the voting precinct,” she said.   Manglapus was among the earliest voters to arrive in her precinct. She credits barangay officials for providing assistance. The voters, however, showed mixed reaction. Some let her wheelchair pass while others blocked her way.   Comelec Commissioner Rene Sarmiento, said there should be efforts to have accessible polling stations, ballots printed in Braille, sign language interpreters, a party-list representative for PWDs, and a PWD commissioner in the Comelec for PWDs to be able to exercise their right of suffrage.    There is also a need to campaign among lawmakers to push for the rights of PWDs as voters, to nurture contacts with international agencies concerned, establish regional networks, to have an ASEAN committee on PWDs and for agencies and groups to exchange best practices, said Sarmiento, who is Comelec’s “focal person” in the Inter-Agency and NGO Network in Empowering PWDs.   Manglapus welcomes the initiatives of both the government and nongovernment agencies to make voting in the 2013 elections PWD-friendly.   She recalls how she felt the first time she exercised her right of suffrage in the 2010 elections: “Sabi ko sa sarili [ko], Filipino na ako (I told myself, I am now a Filipino)!” —Yolanda Sotelo Fuertes, Mario Ignacio IV and Artha Kira Paredes   (VERA Files is a partner of the "Fully Abled Nation" campaign that seeks to increase participation of PWDs in the 2013 elections and other democratic process. Fully Abled Nation is supported by The Asia Foundation and the Australian Agency for International Development. VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for "true.")