“I think we really have to look at persons with disabilities (PWDs) as a part of [human] diversity.” These are the words of Carmen Zubiaga–one of over a million persons living with disabilities (PWDs) in the Philippines—a recorded statistic as of 2020. “We don’t have to look at disability in a peculiar way, ‘no?”
In a society ignorant of their needs and rights, PWDs live each day adjusting to other people’s normal, often being subject to prejudice. As Thyra Navarro—a person with dwarfism—puts it, “I think society is built for [typical people]—people na walang disabilities.” Though just as human as everyone else, PWDs are repeatedly underestimated and viewed merely as their disabilities—nothing more. This stigma explains why most people mistakenly assume they are incapable of contributing to society, thus limiting their opportunities to find jobs.
Such is the case for Patrick Loarca, who feared that employers would go over his skills when he was job-seeking. “Maybe at that time, I had low self-esteem. Maybe it [was] only my mindset,” he reflects, “but I always [relied] on asking a ninong or ninang when applying for a job.”
From inaccessible facilities to limited career opportunities, working PWDs truly weather more storms than others.
A day in the life
“When I graduated, I had difficulty finding a job for two years,” Loarca shares. He recalls how his right-side paralysis, caused by a bacterial infection when he was three years old, stood out to employers. “The minute I was interviewed, they looked at how I walked [and my] body structure,” he recalls. Now a community worker at Bacpat Youth Development Foundation, Loarca helps “poor but deserving students” obtain scholarships and educational assistance, and he feels fulfilled while doing so.
And while Zubiaga faces similar judgment to Loarca, she tries to not let this overshadow her, “I don’t want [them to] look at me na [parang] kawawang PWD. I introduce myself to them as [a] public relations fundraising officer.” A believer in the power of confidence, she wants to prove to other people that her disability is not a factor that hinders her from working. “Nung bago pa lang ako [sa public relations]…ang unang point ko dapat hindi nila nakikita ‘yung disability ko, kundi ‘yung kagandahan ko,” she exudes, “[So] when I speak, nakukuha ko sila.”
(When I was just starting in public relations, I had to present myself well so that people would see my beauty rather than my disability. So when I speak, I get their attention.)
Meanwhile, Navarro has different experiences. A fresh graduate of 2022, she works as social media manager and sales agent of a real estate agency, distributor of a chicharon company, and part-owner of a bottled cocktail business. She admits she faces difficulties in the workplace, as it is not fit to cater her own capabilities. “For example, ‘di ko maabot itong bagay [na ito] kasi nasa taas siya,” she illustrates.
(I can’t reach things because it’s too high.)
But despite being unable to carry out some tasks in the workplace, many working PWDs prove to be just as capable as others if only they were to be seen as humans like everyone else.
Beyond their disabilities
However, Navarro points out that PWDs—especially those with visible disabilities—tend to receive discriminatory treatment. “When [we] say na PWD [kami, people think], ‘Ah, ‘di [nila kaya ‘to] or ‘Hanggang diyan lang [sila]’,” she laments.
(“Ah, they can’t do this,” or “They can only do little.”)
Likewise, Loarca is no stranger to these prejudices. He recalls instances at local establishments and government offices when people would look down on him because of his physical appearance. “They always [look] at the affected part of the body or the physical side, not the [character and personality],” he remarks. But these stares don’t bother him now as much, as he tries to stay above these situations, “[I] cannot control their reactions [toward me], so I just control my reactions to them.”
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for other PWDs. While initiatives from local government units and establishments seek to increase work opportunities for PWDs—such as Baguio City’s ordinance to incentivize establishments that employ qualified PWDs—these efforts often fall flat when the work environment remains unfriendly to them. Even with Republic Act 7277 or the Magna Carta for Disabled Persons, an act ensuring PWDs enjoy their rights, not everyone is guaranteed the same benefits.
“Sometimes, I ask my family and friends why is this not accessible? This is so unfair to me,” Navarro firmly points out in Filipino. Similarly, Zubiaga gets frustrated when there is a lack of accessibility for people like her, especially when it concerns going to her place of work. “Ever since I was a kid, I always get stressed if the place I’m going to is inaccessible. Sometimes, there are rude jeepney drivers whenever I ride a jeep,” she shares in Filipino.
Despite their concerns in and out of their workplace, PWDs are inclined to tolerate the treatment they receive. They’re left with no choice but to do so as they need the salary and employment to survive.
Cultivating safe spaces
Unequal access to necessities and unjust treatment from other people prove that it’s not PWDs’ disabilities that hinder them—it’s society. But making spaces safe, inclusive, and accessible for all PWDs is not far-fetched; progress always starts with education after all.
To this, Loarca and Zubiaga suggest teaching children in school and conducting orientations in government offices and establishments about [the topic]. The former envisions that even being understanding and welcoming of PWDs is a helpful step in making workplaces more inclusive. But the latter is more particular in calling for government offices to do better. “We have to educate the justice system [and] the law enforcers about people with disabilities, [especially since PWDs] are often the victims of injustice,” she reckons.
Along with education, Zubiaga exhorts companies to provide proper training for human resource professionals when dealing with people with disabilities, “Kasi, if we are not aware sa condition…hindi mo sila makikita. Like people with psychosocial disabilities; hindi natin ‘yan mahahalata unless na magkaroon sila ng episode.”
(If we are not aware of the condition, you won’t be able to feel it. Like people with psychosocial disabilities; we won’t be able to assess it unless they have an episode.)
Since PWDs’ situations differ in conditions, it’s critical for the general public to understand how to engage with them. Hence, Zubiaga intended to increase awareness of PWDs and their conditions when she ran for a Senate position in the 2022 National Election, which included promoting the accessibility of PWDs’ benefits and services to create a welcoming environment for everyone to engage in. While she was unsuccessful in getting elected, she continues to advocate for PWD rights through her work as a consultant, as well as utilizing other platforms that support her cause.
Meanwhile, Navarro suggests making minor alterations in the office setting—such as having better access to elevators or putting light switches at a reachable height even for people with dwarfism, “Maski simple thing lang ‘yan, [it] actually matters.”
(Even if it’s just that simple…)
Undoubtedly, being disabled is not easy, but PWDs always strive to make their way through adversities. Loarca reminds, “[Imagine] yourselves in our [shoes] and see our struggles inside-out…how we squeeze into society—not to be rejected [by it] but [to be a part] of [it].” This furthers the need for society to change its views on PWDs and on the idea of inclusivity in general.
The fight for inclusive and safe spaces for the PWD workforce in the country still has a long way to go. But by championing their rights, it won’t be so far away from this being realized. It’s high time employers recognize the potential PWDs have and embrace them for who they are. After all, they are just as qualified and competent as everyone else.