Life as a PWD in the Philippines
Perhaps more than any other fan of HBO’s Game of Thrones, I was quite relieved when Brandon Stark made it back to Winterfell after six long seasons. After surviving a fall from a tower in season one, Bran ended up as a paraplegic who had to rely on Hodor, a strong but gentle stablehand with an intellectual disability. For years, the long-suffering Bran has trudged through hostile environments while on Hodor’s back. As he grew older, he was carried on a cart, and a makeshift sledge. After returning to his ancestral home, he is finally given something more valuable than a dagger made of Valyrian steel: a proper wheelchair.
While we don’t have fire-breathing dragons in our sooty realm, I found Bran’s struggle with mobility relatable as a person with disability, specifically as a guy who slogs around with a forearm crutch because of childhood polio which managed to defeat an incomplete round of vaccines. I got infected before completing a third and final dose. Because of the disease, the lower right side of my musculoskeletal system is underdeveloped. I have to use a forearm crutch so I can walk unassisted over relatively even terrain. Stairs are my worst enemy even if I appreciate the workout that I get from them.
My daily struggle with mobility usually starts the moment I step out of the house and set my wobbly feet on the streets: a reality that any PWD will tell you is no mean feat.
My daily struggle with mobility usually starts the moment I step out of the house and set my wobbly feet on the streets: a reality that any PWD will tell you is no mean feat. Although we are several centuries removed from medieval times, the world at large (especially this country) seems to be still coming out of the dark ages when it comes to accommodating PWDs with various physical, sensory, and intellectual impairments. To a disabled person, a large chunk of this world seems to be designed for regular people by people without any disability. To borrow a term from user interface and user experience (UI/UX) designers, the world has a serious usability problem. The list can get really long if you’re a PWD: uneven surfaces, stairs in place of ramps, non-tactile surfaces, lack of audio feedback from facilities, self-closing doors with heavy return springs etc.
Our relatively modern society is not altogether unsympathetic to the plight of PWDs however from a lawmaker’s perspective. There are several Republic Acts, Batas Pambansa, Presidential Decrees, Administrative Orders, proclamations, ordinances, circulars, and memoranda that take into account the well being of PWDs. These numerous laws are all designed to promote the welfare of PWDs and integrate accessibility for public spaces. The abundance of laws doesn’t automatically translate to an all-access utopia however.
In practice, there are still obstacles that PWDs have to deal with on a daily basis, not counting the societal barriers. There are ramps that are too steep or too narrow for wheelchair users, PWD parking slots that get swiped by the able bodied, PWD toilets that are under lock and key, elevator buttons and signs that lack Braille markings, non-audible pedestrian crossings, and sidewalks without tactile paving and truncated domes. If a lot of the streets in Metro Manila are quite hostile even for normal pedestrians, imagine how much the dangers are multiplied for PWDs. For every widely spaced, ISO-compliant sidewalk ramp in places such as BGC, there are several hazardous and substandard ramps in other cities that are just made for minimum compliance.
Much has been said about how some Filipinos feel like they are second-class citizens in other first-world countries. Now imagine if you are a PWD living in an environment that is mostly out of whack in relation to your capabilities. In my forty odd years of living in this country, that’s how I’ve always felt. Yes, there are those who are always willing to help out a disabled person walk up a few flights of stairs and carry his belongings, but it’s the way most things are built that’s so oppressive and spirit-crushing.
If a lot of the streets in Metro Manila are quite hostile even for normal pedestrians, imagine how much the dangers are multiplied for PWDs.
In places that are designed with maximum accessibility in mind however, the reverse is true. It feels like you are a first-class citizen in a freaking PWD wonderland. You can ride any public transport even if you are blind, hearing-impaired, or in a wheelchair. In London, the buses have hydraulics that lower the vehicle to curb level while a ramp deploys so you can smoothly roll in and out. Should a PWD want to take charge of their own mobility, the British government can offer lower vehicle tax and have the VAT waived for modifying vehicles for PWD use. In Japan, most buildings have automatic doors; walkalators and escalators have voice prompts. You are always sent to the front of the line without having to ask for it. If for some reason, there’s a lack of accessibility in the area, officials are extremely apologetic because something is not working for you and that you are inconvenienced by it. Over time, I’ve seen some of these PWD-friendly facilities locally but they are elusive and barely distributed evenly throughout the city.
Our baffling bureaucracy can also sometimes get in the way for PWDs who want to take charge of their own mobility. We still don’t have a local equivalent of UK’s Motability Scheme where a partnership between the government, charitable sector, financial institutions, and the motoring industry empowers PWDs so they can lease a new vehicle, electric wheelchair or scooter using a government-funded allowance. For a PWD in this country, you’d have to find a way to finance your own road legal vehicle. Because of a lack of demand, there are only a handful of companies that modify vehicles for PWD use. The prohibitive cost of modifications also can be out of reach for most PWDs.
Although it’s fortunate that I am capable enough to operate an unmodified vehicle with an automatic transmission, getting a driver’s license was a frustrating process. After securing a student permit and finishing in a private driving school, I was given the runaround when it was time to get my license. There is no established process for PWDs who want to get a driver’s license. After a medical examiner at an LTO branch gave me a go-ahead for my practical test, I was rejected by an approving official in the same branch who told me to go to the main office to get a certification from their doctor. So I went. At the main branch, I was told that the official doctor couldn’t give me a certificate unless I got another certification from a private doctor who was an expert in my condition. I was only examined and given a certificate by the LTO doctor after submitting a certificate from a private doctor. I’ll even just skip over the details of the regular licensing process. That was how I emerged from red tape hell with a bonafide license.
My friends sometimes joke about what will happen if I become a senior citizen. Will my benefits stack up like a double-buffed RPG spell? Unfortunately, as I’ve learned from being a minor PWD barangay official, I can only avail of the benefits for senior citizens. While being a senior citizen is still a few decades away, I do hope that I get to see some improvement in the life of my fellow PWDs. I don’t have to be a Three-Eyed Raven to tell anyone that.