Garry Pecayo was raring to cast his ballot in May 2022. As head of the Persons with Disability Affairs Office (PDAO) in Tanauan City, Batangas, he knew his rights as a voter as well as the services accorded to people with disabilities (PWD) like him on Election Day.
But he had to endure a difficult experience in the May 2022 polls, the first national elections in the Philippines since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.


Agad akong na-discriminate sa paggamit ng motor pagpasok. Nagsabi na nga na PWD (person with disability), ‘di pa rin pinayagan (I was immediately discriminated against for using my motorcycle to enter the premises. I already said I’m a PWD, but they still didn’t allow me to go in),” he said.
Pecayo needed the ride. He could barely walk straight due to his orthopedic disability. His scooter was supposed to bring him closer to the voting area.

He still managed to vote but only after waiting for four hours at a regular polling precinct. Pecayo was surprised to find out that no accessible polling place or APP was set up by Comelec in the voting center even though the PDAO office he led had issued identification cards to more than 2,800 PWDs in Tanauan.

Pecayo said he would have had a different experience altogether had poll workers been more sensitive to his condition.
Pecayo’s case was not isolated. A survey conducted by nongovernmental organization Upholding Life and Nature (ULAN) in 1,326 voting centers across the country on Election Day documented similar incidents – PWDs and senior citizens reassigned to upper floors, long queues, and PWD voters presumed to be illiterate.
The 1987 Constitution does not only guarantee the right to vote for all regardless of condition, it also provides that a procedure must be designed “for the disabled and the illiterate to vote without the assistance of other persons.” But big hurdles for PWDs and other vulnerable sectors – from registering, voting, to running for office – remain.
Various steps have been taken to address the concerns of Filipinos with disabilities, especially when the Covid-19 pandemic emerged. But the experiences of many PWDs like Pecayo and the ones surveyed by ULAN outweighed these headways, underscoring the need to improve existing mechanisms and initiate reforms.

 APP and EAPP 

The Commission of Elections (Comelec) has set up systems to help PWDs as well as senior citizens, persons deprived of liberty, and indigenous peoples participate in the elections. 
With the passage of the Republic Act 10366 in 2012, the poll body was mandated to put up Accessible Polling Places (APP) for PWDs and senior citizens. The APP is an area within a voting center located on the ground floor, preferably near the entrance of the building, free of any physical barriers, and provided with necessary services such as assistive devices. 
Last year, only 3.86% or 421,221 voters of the 10.5 million registered PWDs and senior citizens signed up to use APPs, according to a presentation by Comelec Vulnerable Sector Office (VSO) head Fernando Besino in December 2022.
Comelec records also showed that in 42 provinces, including Batangas where Pecayo resides, no voter signified their intent to vote in an APP.
The low takeup of the APPs prompted Comelec to also provide Emergency Accessible Polling Places (EAPP) for PWDs and senior citizens who did not sign up for the APP or did not update their registration, those who became disabled or incapacitated after registration, and heavily pregnant women. In 2022, a total of 2,107 EAPPs were set up in 14 regions.

ULAN was part of the group that proposed the use of emergency accessible polling places. To use the APP, eligible persons must accomplish a supplementary form when they register or update their registration.

“Either they (voters) did not know or they did not think it was important [for them to update their registration],” said ULAN Executive Director Ronald Gutierrez.

Some seniors and PWDs also thought that if they were all assigned to the same room, they would no longer be prioritized, the lawyer added.

“[T]he law is very clear, all polling places have to be accessible. You don’t have to do anything extra,” Gutierrez said.

Sean Resureccion, an officer of the Comelec VSO, said the various forms of accessible polling places were part of the Comelec’s efforts to help ensure the participation of vulnerable sectors. Voter’s assistance desks, she said, were set up in polling places. Assistors also took sensitivity training to help them better understand the concerns of voters.
Resurreccion added that the VSO also collaborated or coordinated with various organizations to figure out what services could be offered to complement efforts done by Comelec. For example, the National Council on Disability Affairs (NCDA) provided speakers for their sensitivity training.

 Disaggregated data lacking 

But it’s difficult to fully assess the effectiveness of these measures or whether targets have been achieved because the final tally of disaggregated data for voter registration and voter turnout across all four vulnerable sectors, including PWDs, was still not available as of February 2023.

(PCIJ has been requesting the data from Comelec since June 2022. According to Comelec VSO, as of Jan. 31, 2023, the data was being finalized with the poll body’s Election Records Statistics Division.)

Resureccion told PCIJ that the Comelec VSO typically targetted a 10% increase in new registrants from vulnerable sectors every election year. Without the final breakdown, PCIJ could not compare data from previous election years. (See Tables 1-4.)


 Beyond Election Day 


Ana Fe Maravillas, president of the Las Piñas Persons with Disability Federation, said problems besetting voters went beyond access on Election Day alone, noting that issues in mobility, health, and political participation were all part of the obstacle maze for PWDs like her.
“If you are a PWD and you have mobility issues, do you think one would [make an] effort to go out, register, and vote?” she said, noting that disenfranchisement could begin at the point of registration.

Records from her organization showed that a third of the 21,847 PWDs in Las Piñas City suffered from orthopedic disability. Comelec data meanwhile showed that only 2,912 PWDs registered to vote in Las Piñas. This figure was just about 10% of the PWDs in Maravillas’ group.

PCIJ could not find estimates of the total number PWDs across the country. The National Council for Disability Affairs did not even have a total number of individuals issued with PWD IDs.

The latest number available was from the 2010 census, where 1.44 million Filipinos or 1.57% of the population of 92 million had a disability. The number could be higher as a World Health Organization report had estimated that 10% of the population had disabilities. Both these figures were above the number of registered PWD voters, which suggested a low rate of registration for PWDs.

Maravillas said some PWDs preferred not to disclose their disability for fear of loss of opportunity, which could also mean risking their health. Disabilities of PWDs are diverse, and may require multiple and different responses. “For example, you have epilepsy, then you’ll go out and have a sudden attack, what would happen? Then there is a psychosocial disability,” she said. 

Psychosocial disability restricts a person's ability to be in certain types of social environments. It also includes an inability to concentrate, or not having enough stamina to complete tasks. The Comelec, she said, must recognize the health of PWDs as a diversified issue.
Lily*, a member of Psoriasis Philippines (PsorPhil), an organization that represents the interests of Filipinos suffering from psoriasis, a skin disease, said that she wanted to vote but could not go to the voting center not because of her psoriasis but because of lung fibrosis. “I can’t breathe without medical oxygen,” she said. 
ULAN’s survey monitoring of the use of EAPPs in the 2022 elections resulted in a long list of suggestions for improvement such us putting up more EAPPs, having accessible facilities inside EAPPs (adult seating, provisions for drinking water and snacks, and cleaner toilets), and more visible or larger signages and directions.

Respondents also suggested that PWDs be allowed to vote early, vote in malls, or cast votes online. 

In the 19th Congress, more than 50 bills related to PWDs are pending. Most of these measures promised more funds, free parking, an increase in benefits and privileges, and assistance, but none that could address PWD issues comprehensively.

“We are in the vulnerable sector. If you address our issue, you will also address the concern of others who are in the low rungs of society,” Maravillas said. 

“Address this issue (accessibility) and you also solve the issue of [the] senior sector. Solve our issue of discrimination for possible work, and you solve the issue of employment,” she added. END


Illlustration by Joseph Luigi Almuena

Editor’s note: The author has a skin condition called psoriasis coupled with psoriatic arthritis, rendering him with psychosocial and at times orthopedic disability. He was able to vote in Las Piñas City in the May 2022 elections.


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