By Text and photo by WALTER BALANE, MindaNews and VERA Files
MALAYBALAY CITY, Bukidnon—Only seven out of at least 200 persons with disability in this city were able to register as voters during the special registration held earlier this month, illustrating the obstacles PWDs face just to be able to exercise their right to suffrage.
Local PWD groups lamented the lack of information dissemination by the Commission on Elections and local officials, as well as the difficulties PWDs face traveling from their residences to the registration area. The rotating brownouts in Mindanao aggravated the problem.
Among the seven who managed to register was 31-year-old Gamaya Macua, a fish vendor from Barangay Aglayan who lost her right leg in a vehicular accident in 2005 and now walks using an artificial leg.
Macua had to close her fish stall at the Aglayan public market just to be able to register. But she counts herself lucky compared to other PWDs who were unable to come or who came late because they did not have access to either information or the place where the registration was held.
"The government must look into the problem. It is not fair at all," she said.
The Comelec held a special registration for PWDs on April 17 at the Barangay 9 Covered Court at the city center near the public market. Shortly after lunch, a brownout prompted the Comelec to close the registration, to the dismay of 10 PWDs who went to enlist but were turned away. Most of the 10 were hearing-impaired.
The registration area never reopened. No one who came in the afternoon got to sign up. The seven who registered all came in the morning.
The registration in Malaybalay is part of the monthlong special Comelec registration of PWDs in Mindanao that started on April 1. In Malaybalay City where the special registration for PWDs was being held for the first time, however, the Comelec scheduled it only for a day.
"One day is also not enough. It should have been at least a week," said Rudy Jimeno, a retired police officer who became visually impaired after he was shot in an encounter in 2007, and president of the Malaybalay City United Persons with Disabilities Association.
Jimeno said the number of registrants who showed up was "a pittance." Hundreds couldn't make it, he said, either because they had no money for fare from their remote villages to the venue in downtown Malaybalay or because they did not know about it.
Jimeno said he was told by the Malaybalay City Social Welfare and Development Office (CSWDO) that the special registration would have been discussed in a meeting of PWD associations in the region in Cagayan de Oro on March 21. But the meeting was called off. The next thing he knew, the special registration had been slated for April 17, the only one scheduled in this city of 144,000 residents, the urban center and capital of Bukidnon province.
Election assistant Rebecca Diana said Comelec Malaybalay could schedule another day for PWDs if there was a need to. Only seven new voters registered on that day, excluding two other PWDs who updated their registration. Another one came the day after. "But we will still accommodate them if they come here," she added.
Diana admitted, however, that the local Comelec office had no intention of risking its registration machine by taking it outside the city where it could break down.
The Malaybalay Comelec's mindset stands in contrast with other towns. In Lantapan town, for instance, the PWD registration lasted for several days, with Comelec personnel taking the machine outside the town center.
Jimeno said there is a need for more advocacies at the barangay level to reach the PWDs in the villages. "It could have been an opportunity for the barangay council to help their constituents because the most in need PWDs are in the villages," he said.
Section 7 of Republic Act 7277 provided among the political and civil rights of PWDs, their right to vote, including accessibility of polling places. The 1992 law, which was revised by RA 9442 in 2006, provided for the rehabilitation, self-development and self-reliance of persons with disabilities and their integration into the mainstream of society.
Both the Comelec and the CSWDO could not give the exact number of PWDs in Malaybalay City. CSWDO staff estimated 200 PWDs in just nine barangays out of the city's 46 barangays. Assistant social welfare director Seferiana Caiña mentioned that 400 PWDs attended a summit in the province in July 2011.
The Comelec Malaybalay office said it coordinated the event through the Malaybalay CSWDO which contacted the PWD association. But Jimeno said the information came too late.
Melinda Alenton, the CSWDO focal person for PWDs, said in a phone interview that her office had informed all 46 barangay councils about the special registration and also went to barangays to personally encourage identified PWDS. She later admitted that the CSWDO only reached nine of the city's 35 barangays outside of the 14-barangay poblacion area.
Jimeno said the most his group could do was conduct a "text brigade" to existing members and their friends. That's how Macua learned about the schedule for special registration.
Jimeno's association also informed its media partner, radio station DXDB about it. But the announcement was read only on the day of the special registration.
A new voter's registration form for PWDs aims to gather data about PWDs' requirements for voting. Macua indicated no "special needs" in her registration form and also showed personal conviction to vote in 2013.
The others specified different needs to be able to vote.
A 32-year-old woman with hearing impairment from Can-ayan village and two others said they needed an interpreter. Two persons with visual impairment also noted that they needed guides to be able to vote. A 64-year-old man with no legs requested that he be listed in a precinct accessible to wheelchair users.
(VERA Files is a partner of the "Fully Abled Nation" campaign that seeks to increase participation of PWDs in the 2013 elections and other democratic process. Fully Abled Nation is supported by The Asia Foundation and the Australian Agency for International Development. VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for "true.")