BAGUIO CITY—Avelino Tomas was five years old when he was first exposed to the realities of poverty.
It was at that age that Tomas, who was born without lower limbs, was thrust into the limelight of carnivals in Zambales in the early 70s to help his family make ends meet.
For 25 centavos per person, townsfolk could watch Tomas do his stunts: balancing his body on a piece of wood or by climbing a pole using the strength of his arms.
The carnival shows made spectacles of children like Tomas and christened them with titles such as “Batang Sirena” (little mermaid) or “Taong Manyika” (human doll). Tomas was given his own.
“I was called Little Lino, the little frog,” Tomas, now 47, recalls. He said that doing those stunts to entertain people was “all play” to him then and he did not know it was tantamount to child labor.
“But it was my parents who were sad about the situation because I always worked late and I was always exhausted,” said Tomas, who got into the carnival after an acquaintance of his father suggested he work there. “They never wished that I would be in that kind of situation, but because of poverty, I was made to do it.”
Poverty may have marked Tomas’ childhood but it was also the same circumstance that gave him the strength and determination to pursue his dreams, and later, become an advocate for the rights of persons with disabilities (PWDs).
Tomas was born on October 24,1966 to parents who were both tenant farmers in Sta. Ignacia, Tarlac. He was the fourth child in a brood of eight.
In the 1970s, the family moved to Zambales to work in a farm owned by a haciendera named Doña Lourdes Rodriguez.
When Rodriguez learned of Tomas’ carnival work, she urged his parents to send him to school. So, he said, his parents “worked hard” to send him to school, a seven-kilometer walk from their house so his siblings would carry him on their backs as they crossed the river.
“The situation had become difficult for my siblings later on, so I stopped going to school,” Tomas says.
When Rodriguez learned that Tomas stopped going to school, she took the child in as her ward and sent him to an elementary school in San Marcelino town.
After finishing elementary, Tomas’ interest in pursuing his studies in high school was almost hampered when his father, who was then working in the mines, discouraged him from doing so.
“Wala kasing maghahatid sa akin (because no one would take me to the school), there was no wheelchair then,” he says.
Seeing the state that Tomas was in, social workers of the mining company had offered to give him a wheelchair so he could study in high school.
“It was my first time to see a wheelchair then. Before the wheelchair, some friends would just carry me on their backs or put me on a stroller (for babies) so I could just move around. I never felt left out when I was growing up, the community was supportive when it came to my situation,” Tomas muses.
After finishing high school in 1985, the social workers urged him to take a skills training course in the Baguio branch of Tahanang Walang Hagdanan, a nongovernment organization that helps the orthopedically impaired. For a year, he studied electronics and watch repair.
“The director of Tahanang Walang Hagdanan saw me and asked if I would be interested in pursuing college studies, so I answered ‘why not’. So I went down to Manila after a year of training. I studied at the Trinity College of Quezon City as a scholar of Jaime V. Ongpin Foundation. I stayed in a dorm for PWDs,” he says.
Tomas graduated with a degree in business administration after seven years, but found it difficult to find work after.
It would be his skills training that would land him a job in a company owned by now Sen. Francis Pangilinan, who was then making a business in the stone craft industry. After working for months, he returned to Zambales hoping that he could be employed in the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority.
“I was not lucky; they did not know where to place me for lack of qualification,” he recalls.
In 1998, when Joseph “Erap” Estrada became the president, Tomas travelled to Malacañang to get his recommendation letter for a job placement.
Tomas remembers holding Estrada to his word. “He said ‘Erap para sa mahirap (Erap for the poor),’ kaya naglakas loob ako kumuha ng recommendation letter (that’s why I had the guts to get a recommendation letter). From Malacañang, I would travel back to Quezon City on my wheelchair because I had no money for taxi.”
Since he could not find work in Manila, he went back to Baguio. It was at St. Louis University (SLU) where he found work as a member of the cooperative’s production staff.
Tomas has been working for eight years now in the cooperative that builds school chairs and makes Braille books for the blind for SLU’s Institute for Inclusive Education.
Last February, during the first quarter national sectoral council meeting of PWDs, he was elected as a council member representing Cordillera region for the National Anti-Poverty Commission- Persons with Disabilities sector.
Tomas said the council would push for a three-year agenda that would cater to their needs and promote their rights and welfare as one of the basic sectors of the society.
Among the items in the agenda they want to push is institutionalizing Persons with Disability Affairs Office (PDAO) in every province, city and municipality. Establishing PDAO in every province, town and city is mandated by Republic Act 10070.
“The PDAO will cater to all the basic needs of PWDs such as health services concerns, we will not have to be tossed from one office to another,” Tomas says.
Tomas said PWD leaders have discussed how to lobby the government on the passage of laws pertaining to PWDs. The PWDs also aim to have a representation in meetings of local development councils and other special bodies.
Tomas said one of the main concerns of PWDs is still the lack of accessibility and infrastructures, particularly in Baguio which is hilly.
Baguio, the summer capital of the Philippines, in the regional center of the Cordillera Administrative Region comprised of mountainous provinces of Abra, Kalinga, Apayao, Ifugao and Benguet.
The city “also lacks ramps and the buildings lack elevators. For example, there are PWDs who cannot pay their insurance or bills because the offices are located in higher levels and the buildings don’t have a lift. What we’re asking for is a reasonable accommodation for people with disabilities,” Tomas laments.
“But accessibility is not only about ramps and railings for those who are on a wheelchair,” Tomas said. “There should be accessibility for the blind, like a voice warning when there are emergencies, or warning lights for people whose speech and hearing are impaired. Accessibility is also about being able to give proper health and legal services.”
Tomas said they also want to draft policies, plans and programs which the local government could adopt. He added that LGUS such as Baguio should pass an ordinance promoting the rights and welfare of PWDs.
“Our dream in general is to see PWDs to have an active participation in all aspects of society. Let’s admit that PWDs always have difficulty finishing their studies. We also have difficulty when it comes to employment,” Tomas says.
Tomas said the Department of Education should broaden its coverage of scholarships for PWDs while Technical Education and Skills Development Authority should do the same for skills training so that PWDs could be self employed.
“We accept the fact we have our own weaknesses as PWDs, but we hope that society will look at our situation. We want to awaken the community gradually about what we can offer based on our skills and abilities. We are not here to ask for pity, if we do that, our capacities will not be recognized anymore. We are here and we have something to offer,” Tomas says.
He said despite the hardships of being a PWD, he always prefers to look at the brighter side.
Tomas lives with his wife and three children in Beckel village in La Trinidad, Benguet. He goes to work everyday driving his owner type jeepney which he himself designed.
“I never look at my condition as an obstacle. I will be here to fight for the rights of PWDs, and I’m hoping that society will support us. I’m happy with life, and I love eating rice,” he says.
(This story is part of Reporting on Persons With Disability, a project of VERA Files in partnership with The Asia Foundation and Australian Agency for International Development. )