The year 2008, for instance, saw the Philippines join in ratifying the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which intends to protect the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities, as well as ensuring that they enjoy full equality under the law.
At the recently held 2013 Philippine National Autism Conference, Department of Justice (DOJ) Secretary Leila de Lima discussed how the government is striving to provide persons with disabilities (PWD) equal protection under the law. PWDs, and children with autism in particular, hold a special place in De Lima’s heart as she is mother to Israel and grandmother to Brandon, children with autism.
De Lima says that being the mother of a child with autism has not only taught her to be accepting, but vigilant when it comes to combating discrimination as well.
“I do not want people to feel that I am glossing over the difficulties and trials of being the parent and grandparent of children with autism. But my system was built on the premise that early and unequivocal acceptance equates to early joy,” she says. “Owing perhaps to my being a lawyer, I never felt threatened by institutions which may exclude or be discriminatory of my kids. I became more sensitized to the institutions barring access to true and complete fulfillment of rights of people.”
ACCESS TO JUSTICE
That vigilance was evident when she first took the helm of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) in September 2007. She says that under her leadership, the CHR released a working paper on the rights of PWDs in accessing the justice system.
According to De Lima, the paper revealed that access to justice for people with disabilities often means overcoming obstacles of discrimination, communication, and physical access. Also worrying were the findings that showed that PWDs are at a higher risk of becoming victims of crime and exploitation and may be used by others for criminal purposes.
But the most distressing part about the 2008 study was how access to the legal system is often a difficult affair for PWDs.
“The CHR study concluded that the negative stereotyping and discrimination of PWDs by law enforcement officials and other employees of the justice system resulted in the disincentive to tap official government channels to enjoy respite from legal woes,” says De Lima. “For PWDs, communication with legal practitioners can be very difficult. Legal practitioners may not be able to understand or communicate with their clients as they may not have the adequate interpretation facilities.”
De Lima says that her current role as DOJ Secretary has helped her address the problems exposed by the 2008 CHR working paper. Under her tenure, the DOJ has created its own Action Center, situated right beside the gate of the DOJ complex in Padre Faura so as to ensure access to all people, even those with disabilities. De Lima also says that the DOJ will take an inventory of its prosecutors and frontliners to see whether they are sensitized to the needs of PWDs, particularly on the area of how to convey information and even facilitative communication.
The DOJ has also launched a PWD Legal Assistance Desk at the Quezon City Prosecutors office equipped with a manual on disability sensitivity for public attorneys and prosecutors. The Public Attorneys’ Office has also newly-designated PWD-friendly public attorneys who will handle complaints from PWDs.
DOJ Secretary Leila de Lima outlines the avenues PWDs can pursue when faced with legal troubles or discrimination...
De Lima also stressed two new laws that PWDs can refer to when faced with discrimination in schools or in the job market. One of these laws is the act expanding the positions reserved for people with disability, which amends the Magna Carta of Disabled Persons.
“Such law seeks to address de facto discrimination against PWDs by making it mandatory for government agencies and government-owned corporations to reserve one percent of their workforce for disabled persons,” explains De Lima. “The new law also has an innovation as it encourages private companies with more than 100 employees to hire disabled persons and set aside at least one percent of their workforce for them.”
While the new law has no punitive clauses on heads of agencies or government owned and controlled corporations that do not comply with the wording and the spirit of the law, De Lima says PWDs can file an administrative case against the management invoking the Civil Service Commission’s administrative disciplinary rules.
Another law is the Anti-Bullying Act of 2013, which requires schools to adopt policies to prevent and redress all acts of bullying in their institutions.
“As parents who have put their autistic children in mainstream or even non-traditional schools will attest that their children are all prey to the antics and even cruelty of bullies,” she says. “The Anti-Bullying Law carries no criminal liability for violations. However, there are other laws that parents can resort to such as the Anti-Child Abuse Act, which has penal conditions unlike the Anti-Bullying Act.”
De Lima also trumpeted government institutions specifically targeting PWDs, such as The National Council for Disability Affairs and the Council on the Welfare of Children.
While De Lima says that the situation for PWDs in the Philippines is far from ideal, she says she hopes that the day will come when Filipino PWDs will enjoy full equality alongside their able-bodied countrymen.
“Clearly, there are so many things that need to be accomplished so that we can be close to the level of Scandinavian countries in engendering an environment where we can allow autistic loved ones to live their lives to the fullest so that they may self-actualize in the most poetic and beautiful way,” she says. “I am hopeful that in time, we will be able to put our acts together and build a more inclusive, sensitive, and embracing Philippines. I pray that we become instruments of their empowerment. Let us carry on our shoulders the plight of the PWDs.”
This article appeared on o2 December 2013 in the print and on-line versions of Manila Bulletin's "Angels Talk" under the by-line of Ronald Lim.