By Leilanie Adriano, VERA Files
LAOAG CITY— The Commission on Elections sees the low turnout in last month's special voters registration for persons with disabilities (PWDs) in the Ilocos region as a "good sign."
"You have (few) PWDs. Ibig sabihin malulusog po ang mga Ilocano… Kaya ang bilang ng mga may kapansanan dito a kokonti (This means that Ilocanos are healthy. That is why there are very few PWDs here)," Commissioner Rene Sarmiento said when he visited Ilocos Norte on Friday.
Special registrations were held all over Luzon last month. But Comelec records for Ilocos Norte and Pangasinan show that many of the scheduled registrations in the two provinces generated from zero to very low turnout. Data for Ilocos Sur and La Union are not yet available.
The region is composed of the provinces of Ilocos Norte and Sur, La Union and Pangasinan, and has a total of 2.6 million voters as of last elections out of a population of more than just 4.5 million. Pangasinan is one of the five provinces nationwide with the highest number of voters in the country.
Comelec records as of January 2012 show that the northern Luzon provinces in Region I or Ilocos Region have the following number of registered PWD voters: Ilocos Sur, 1,347; Ilocos Norte, 1,670; Pangasinan, 1,164 and La Union, 763.
There are nine cities, 116 municipalities and 3,265 barangays in the four provinces.
A survey by the Department of Social Welfare and Development's (DSWD) National Household Targeting System for Poverty Reduction of surveyed PWDs nationwide does not identify PWDs who are of voting age.
In the list, Ilocos Sur has 3,444 PWDs, Ilocos Norte 2,182, La Union 3,975 and Pangasinan 14,593.
Sarminento, the focal person in the Inter-Agency and NGO Network in Empowering Persons with Disability, spoke before almost a hundred election officers and election assistants, representatives from non-government organizations and the DSWD from all over the region in a short program held at the Plaza del Norte Hotel.
His visit to Laoag City was an effort to reach out and empower the vulnerable or marginalized sectors such as PWDs, detainees, indigenous peoples and senior citizens.
In his speech, he urged election officers, public and private organizations, including other concerned stakeholders in Ilocos Norte, to extend their help to vulnerable and marginalized sectors. He said it was a "measure of a person's greatness" to "assist somebody who cannot repay you back."
During the satellite registrations for PWDs in the 21 municipalities and two cities of Ilocos Norte from April to May, most Comelec offices reported from zero to less than 10 PWD registrants.
In Ilocos Norte, Provincial PWD coordinator Precy Dada of the Provincial Social Welfare and Development Office (PSWDO) said at least 18 towns in the province have their own PWD organizations, including a provincial federation being assisted by the PSWDO.
In every municipality or city in the province, the PSWDO has assigned a focal person to work with PWDs, she said.
Dada added that the time and venue for satellite registrations of PWDs were properly coordinated with the municipal and city social welfare offices, including concerned village officials, through information dissemination and public service announcement from local radio stations.
Lawyer John Paul Martin, Comelec officer of Laoag City, believes the poll body has already saturated the registration of new PWD voters. On May 14, during the second scheduled offsite registration for PWDs at the Laoag Amphitheater, no PWD registered.
He said the Comelec also asked a representative from the City Social Welfare Office for assistance to facilitate easier and faster communication with their PWD clients, especially those with hearing and speech disabilities. He admitted that none of his staff at the Comelec had proper training in dealing or communicating with PWDs.
Similarly, Comelec officer Josephine Balbas of Batac City also reported zero turnout of PWD registration last May 10-12 at the Imelda Cultural Center, located adjacent to the Batac City Hall. She said the local Comelec office plans to transfer the PWD registration at the Batac supermarket in the next schedule of special registration for PWDs for "greater convenience and accessibility."
Though most of the satellite registrations for PWDs yielded zero results, Ilocos Norte Comelec officers agreed to intensify their campaign for new PWD voters registration and reach out in the barangays.
Based on the provincial Comelec records as of July 2011, PWD registered voters total 223—with most of them having visual, hearing and speech disabilities.
Interestingly, Comelec provincial supervisor Alipio Castillo said the low turnout of PWD registration may also be attributed to the Ilocano culture of availing services at the last minute as observed in previous listups. Castillo appealed to all qualified voters, including PWDs, not to wait for the Oct. 31 deadline for registration to avoid congestion and long lines of applicants.
In some instances, Dada said some of the PWDs, especially those with no formal education, are ashamed to go and register.
(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 senior journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. VERA is Latin for "true.")