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A Glimpse of the Employment Status of Persons with Dsabilities in the Philippines from a Cebuano Perspective

Adela Kono

Abstract The picture of employment among Filipinos with disabilities in the current setting of economic difficulty is not a pretty one. Here in the Philippines, a person with disabilities (PWD) has to put up with all sorts of difficulties: poverty, lack of financial and environmental access to quality education, etc. Although the government has already been aware of, yet is slow towards, the poorly coordinated services and even incapacitated to respond to his needs. Efforts made both by the government and the non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including the self-help organizations run by PWDs themselves, are hardly adequate to prepare or equip a PWD for competitive and gainful long-term employment. More often than not, he lags behind the rest. The concept of equal opportunities in this country remains a dream for him, a frustration for those who truly seeks its reality, and a continuing challenge for those who does not give up on his welfare.

It is common knowledge for us in the Philippines that even near-accurate data or social statistics is hard to come by for the simple reason that our information infrastructure, especially in the government sector, is not yet fully developed. In fact, systematic data gathering remains one of this country's greatest challenge; especially when one considers how fragmented its 7,100 islands are and how severe the economic problems loom over its people.

From sources such as the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) in Region 7 or the Eastern Visayan Region and from raw data gathered through text messaging via cellphones by PWDs themselves from around the country, data on the employment status of PWDs is still sketchy and very volatile.

About three years ago, the DOLE in the main cities of the country launched job fairs specifically for PWDs as one way to highlight the annual National Disability Prevention and Rehabilitation Week.

Ability and talent aside, those who make it are mostly moderately disabled meaning those who are limp or use canes or crutches and have the confidence to try anything new, or just to get a job that pays better. I recalled a job fair in which roughly 15 percent of those who attended were considered for the jobs available and then only 10 percent made it, yet on contractual basis. At the end of their contracts, some three to six months later, maybe only 3 persons remained on the job.

Our social worker tried to verify figures obtained from the DOLE by calling the companies that hired those PWDs at the job fair, but the response generated a sinking feeling in me that those figures no longer exist?those disabled people who had been hired were gone for a long time, and strangely, for reasons they even could not remember. Most likely, those job contracts were simply not renewed. For those who are on wheelchairs, hope to get a job in a job fair or otherwise, are quite difficult. Obviously educational under-attainment and non-accessibility of the working place are the main causes. For all job fairs organised in the last 3 years, I noted the same observation and I heard pretty much the same comments from the disabled colleagues.

I sadly remembered one earnest effort on the part of the DOLE two years ago in Cebu City to generate awareness and employment advocacy for PWDs from selected bodies of the business sector, and I was asked to appeal to them in that forum to take initiatives to remove the architectural barriers hindering the employment of PWDs. As a result, the most unfortunate and unbelievable thing happened?no one showed up. At the end, the agency head closed the activity that had never begun in the first place with unspeakable regret. His sincere apology barely consoled me in those moments of hopelessness I felt not only for myself, but also for all the PWDs there.

Who and what were to be blamed? Poor timing? The venue? The lack of strategic planning? The apathy of the business sector? Too many questions that demanded hard answers.... One newspaper columnist who was sympathetic to the plight of PWDs took up this issue in his column, but no one dared to react. The difficult issues are often set aside and forgotten.

The majority of wheelchair-users find employment in sheltered workshops. Probably most of them work in the "House with No Steps" in Manila and "Goodwill Industries" in Cebu. These two organizations are employing hundreds of persons with a varied range of disabilities, including also the hearing impaired. There are successful stories in themselves that deserve further scrutiny, appreciation and duplication.

At a recent meeting of the Regional Committee for the Welfare of Disabled Persons held in mid-April in the Eastern Visayas, the issue regarding employers' tax incentives for hiring PWDs was raised. The general impression was that no one had ever heard of any employer hiring a PWD applied for tax-deduction. Why? The associated paperwork and bureaucracy it entails have killed off any incentive whatsoever. A few of those who do hire PWDs in their establishments and keep them in their regular payroll are those whose hearts and minds are genuinely concerned about the welfare of PWDs.

Some enterprises have an open policy about hiring persons with certain types of disability. To work in the kitchen of fast food chains is the popular choice of the hearing impaired.

Many who are artistically inclined usually find their livelihood with private enterprises or individuals such as advertising agencies, hobbyists, or if confident enough, be selfemployed.

People with visual impairment face a different but difficult problem. They are fed up with the limited career choice they have: either as massage therapists or musicians. They clamor for new courses to be made available to them in special vocational schools, but such schools are hard-pressed to meet their needs. Technology for their learning and mobility barely exist in this country. What makes it more difficult for them to initiate changes in their sector is the lack of a united force?the empowerment and systematic organizational administration which is crucial in building linkages and attracting funds for economic projects.

The problem is also true when applying to people with hearing impairment. Because of the general unavailability and the prohibitive cost of technological advance designed to improve communication among the hearing impaired, and the poor sign language interpretation, official documentation that is often required in qualifying for grants and funding for organizations is generally lacking. This is a problem I have seen in the Ahon Bayan (Arise, Nation!) Program of President Arroyo, which links up the NGOs with funding agencies for livelihood projects. It seems that some legitimate and wellmeaning organizations of PWDs need a breakthrough because most of them fail to meet the documentary requirements that their organizations could hardly produce as they generally encounter the problems of lack of manpower, office resources, and professional ability.

For a change, we see a light shining at Sunshine Center Workshop for Special Children. Two years ago, they started participating in a livelihood and recycling program of crushing used beverage aluminum cans (UBCs) that will be melted into aluminum tubing for the production of light-weight wheelchairs and other mobility aids and enabling A Glimpse of the Employment 47 tools by persons with orthopedic disabilities at the Rolando B. Tirol (RBT) Rehab- Aid Workshop, run by the Handicapped Anchored In Christ, Inc. (HACI). While this might be too soon to say, but if indeed plans do become real?should the entire Mactan Export Processing Zone-1, which comprises some 120 foreign manufacturing companies, decides to donate daily all the UBCs from their canteens to Sunshine Center and HACI. Think about how many more developmentally challenged adults can join in this livelihood project and how many aluminum wheelchairs can HACI produce! Right now, there are five PWDs working for the crushing project at Sunshine, whilst nine orthopedically handicapped persons at the RBT Workshop making wheelchairs and enabling tools.

There is an even bigger workshop and another successful story happened in the Atlas Mining Community Handicapped Association (AMCHA). It is a multi-purpose Cooperative in Toledo City localed on the other side of Cebu Island. There are 40 PWDs making desks and chairs for the Department of Education. It belongs to the umbrella group, the National Federation of Cooperatives of Persons with Disabilities (NFCPWD), together with a number of cooperatives around the country from Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao?a fact that shows the interest of PWDs in cooperatives as a way to augment their income.

One of the best jobs befitting the residual abilities of PWDs is the city amusement tax checker stationed in the ticket counter of movie houses. The job is boring for able-bodied persons, but the sitting nature of this job suits the requirements of both the amusement tax office and the PWDs.

In most of the cities we covered, except Cebu, there is noted increase in employment among PWDs as recorded by local government units. Unfortunately, owing to the advers, political factors, there was a decline in the employment rate of PWDs in Cebu in the past two years.

Nevertheless, the government goes on with its laudable programs of education, skills training, employment preparation, and funding livelihood projects through loans or grants and even overseas technical assistance specifically for PWDs through its various line agencies.

In my personal opinion, I see very little rooms for improvement in the quality of life of PWDs in the Philippines unless there is an earnest effort in both the government and private sectors to dramatically improve the accessibility to approach international standards in as many places as possible. The Filipinos with disabilities will never be able to improve themselves economically if they are denied access to education at all levels. This has remained a sticky problem at the regional level. It also demands the immediate attention and solutions by several agencies concerned. The Accessibility Law has not yet been implemented in schools, colleges and universities, in spite of all the advocacy work, staggered though it is. Ramps, specially equipped toilets, and functioning elevators practically do not exist in schools?public or private. At regional level, representatives from the Department of Public Works and Highways and the Department of Education still blame Manila and take no responsibilities for this problem. The majority of PWDs cannot receive proper education, not because of poverty itself, but more because of the complications and insurmountable difficulties caused by inaccessibility. In rare instances severely disabled children are able to attain good education only by the dogged determination and financial capability of parents who dare to aim high and sacrifice much for their disabled children. The Magna Carta for Disabled Persons (R.A.7277), like the Accessibility Law (B.P.344), remains a noble-intentioned law; but too many laws are unheeded in this country, even by the government herself.

With rampant under-attainment of education among PWDs, vocational courses are mostly what are open to them, leading only to low-paying jobs. With contractual work being the trend under this severe economic climate, PWDs have to compete with the able-bodied in the job market?and often lose out. The DOLE is probably right. They encourage PWDs to become self-employed and to become entrepreneurs. It is the only way out of the poverty spiral.

In the meantime, while all odds are against the Filipinos with disabilities, amazingly their light-hearted spirit remains intact and allows them to float above every negative situation they face. Helped by the warmth of close family and friendship of community ties, they manage to survive happily?until that lucky break comes and gives them the chance to prove themselves able.