By XIANNE ARCANGEL and MARIO IGNACIO IV
THE Commission on Elections has promised to make voting precincts more accessible to persons with disabilities, even if Congress fails to pass the proposed the Polling Center Accessibility Act in time for the May 2013 midterm elections.
Commissioner Rene Sarmiento said the Comelec will issue resolutions to ensure that accessibility will no longer be a problem for PWD voters in the upcoming polls, as it had been in the past.
Sarmiento went to Valenzuela City on April 25 to check the special voters’ registration for PWDs, which was part of the Comelec’s push to get more PWDs to register and vote. Special registration for PWDs has been held all over the country since March.
“We are supportive of congressional measures seeking to improve access(ibility) to PWDs on election day,” Sarmiento said. “But in case they are not approved by Congress, the Comelec will act on them by issuing resolutions.”
House Bill 5509, which mandates the setting aside of ground-floor rooms near the entrance to polling precincts for PWD, elderly and pregnant women voters, is pending before the Senate.
Sarmiento, who is the commission’s focal person in the InterAgency and NGO Network in Empowering PWDs pushing for PWD rights, also disclosed that Comelec is working with Alyansa ng may Kapansanang Pinoy (AKAP-Pinoy), a nongovernment organization, to make the information on voting districts and precincts available to PWDs online.
“We’re doing this so that PWDs do not have to go physically to their local Comelec office just to know where they would be voting. Hopefully, the system will be in place in time for the elections,” he said.
Records from the Comelec office in Valenzuela show that a total of 58 PWDs registered, reclassified and updated their records during the special registration held at the Valenzuela City Convention Hall.
The number is less than expected, but the city’s Community Social Welfare and Development Office (CSWDO) considers the event a success because the registration went on smoothly and it was able to receive assistance not just from NGOs but from all of the city’s 33 barangays as well.
The Cerebral Palsied Association of the Philippines had expected at least 70 PWDs to register.
As of 2010, the city had a population of some 575,000, of which 260,000 are registered voters and 2,668 are PWD voters.
There were fewer registrants last week, compared to the 127 PWDs who registered at a similar event in SM Valenzuela last year.
CPAP president Charito Manglapus conducted a seminar for PWD voters simultaneous with the registration activities, and said the CSWDO and the Comelec were “hands-on” in staging the event.
She said the two government offices took care of searching for a registration venue and publicizing the event.
Ken Lennon Sabangan, the administrative aid officer in charge of the CSWDO’s PWD unit, said his office was able to work directly with barangay officials in identifying the PWDs in their respective areas. The officials themselves disseminated information about the event, and some barangays even provided vehicles to transport their residents to and from the convention hall.
Sabangan, who has an orthopedic disability and walks with a crutch, has been working actively to improve the status of PWD assistance in Valenzuela City.
Before the creation of a special PWD unit in the CSWDO, the files of PWDs in Valenzuela were unorganized and lumped together with the files of other persons seeking social welfare assistance from the office, Sabangan said.
His unit is now in charge of collecting information about PWDs and assisting them.
One of NGOs tapped for the upcoming elections is Life Haven Inc., an organization advocating PWDs to live independently. Its volunteers conducted house-to-house visits and talked to PWDs about the importance of registering as a voter for the elections.
Eric Dy, a PWD peer counselor, said the organization wants to dispel the misconception even by PWDs that they could not vote because they are disabled.
“Voting is a right of any person. The problem is that society thinks of PWDs as useless just because they are disabled. If people see that PWDs are participating in social and political acts such as voting, they will realize that PWDs deserve to be given equal opportunities like them,” he said.
Dy, however, stressed that it is not only PWDs who need to be aware of their rights. People without disabilities, especially election workers, have to be aware of them as well.
He related the experience of a friend who was not able to vote during the 2010 elections because no one was willing to carry his wheelchair to his precinct at the second floor of a school.
“Assistance for PWDs (in the previous elections) depended on the election officers at the precinct. If they are kind and informed, they’ll assist you. But if they are lazy, the PWD might just be turned away. My friend was sent home,” Dy added.
Sarmiento said the agency is working hard to inform election officers about the rights of PWDs. He cited the Comelec’s periodic release of resolutions pertaining to PWD welfare as a way of educating officers at the grassroots level.
He also mentioned the release of Resolution 9220 as an example of Comelec’s efforts to address the needs of PWD registrants.
The resolution called for better accessibility for PWDs at registration venues and the revision of the registration form to include supplementary data on the type of disability and the form of assistance needed by the PWD on election day.
Manglapus, meanwhile, feels encouraged by the Comelec’s openness to suggestions seeking to improve the PWDs right to suffrage.
“Ang maganda sa Comelec, nakikinig sila. Nararamdaman po namin na kami ay bahagi sa paggawa ng batas (What’s good with Comelec is that they listen. We feel that we are part of the lawmaking process),” she said.
(The author is a journalism student of the University of the Philippines who is writing for VERA Files as part of her internship. VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”)