By Diana J. Mendoza, PhD
The period of Nov. 10 to 16 is Deaf Awareness Week in the Philippines, while Dec. 3 is the “International Day of Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) in the Philippines. The annual celebrations of Deaf Awareness Week and the International Day of PWDs in the country started in 1991 and 2006, respectively.
Republic Act (RA) No. 7277 or the 1992 Philippine Magna Carta for Disabled Persons defines PWDs as “those suffering from restriction of different abilities, as a result of a mental, physical or sensory impairment, to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being.” Impairment, according to the law, refers to “any loss, diminution or aberration of psychological, physiological, or anatomical structure or function”; disability as “(1) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more psychological, physiological or anatomical function of an individual or activities of such individual; (2) a record of such an impairment; or (3) being regarded as having such an impairment”; and handicap as “a disadvantage for a given individual resulting from an impairment or a disability, that limits or prevents the functions or activity, that is considered normal given the age and sex of the individual.”
The Philippine Magna Carta predates the 2008 United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) of which the country is a signatory. The Magna Carta outlines the obligations of the Philippine government to protect and provide for the rights and privileges of disabled persons in order for them to fully participate in all aspects of socio-political life. The UN Convention sets out the obligations of States Parties “to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity”.
While the Philippine Magna Carta for PWDs remains to be the primary law recognizing the rights of Filipinos with disabilities, the country has many other laws and formally decreed policies protecting and promoting the rights of PWDs from the 1950s to 1980s. Among these, Batasang Pambansa Blg. 344 or The Accessibility Law and its Amended Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) serve as the most significant developments in the direction of promoting the interests and welfare of PWDs in the Philippines. To quote the Philippine Commission on Human Rights in its 2010 advisory on the implementation of the law, both the law and its amended IRR “lay out the requirements for the mainstreaming of persons with disabilities in the country through the recognition of their rights, acknowledgement of their special needs and elimination of discrimination against them in terms of accessibility to transportation, among others” as well as “building requirements and transport requirements under Part IV of the Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR).” The Accessibility Law penalizes violators including corporations who violate the law with fine and imprisonment and deportation in case of violations by an alien or foreigner.
The Magna Carta for PWDs has been amended in 2007 to include “Other Privileges and Incentives and Prohibitions on Verbal, Non-verbal Ridicule and Vilification against Persons with Disability” and in 2010 for the establishment of People with Disability Affairs Office in every province, city and municipality in the country. Further amendments to the law in 2013 and 2016 provided for equal employment opportunity for PWDs and exemption privilege from value added tax, respectively.
But how effective are the laws in protecting PWDs in the country? Is the Philippine State able or disabled in enforcing the laws? What impairs the State and despairs PWDs?
In its 2010 advisory on the implementation of the Accessibility Law, the CHR noted that “the implementation of this law remains inadequate if not manifestly scarce.” Buildings and the public transport system remain neglectful of the special needs of PWDs. Almost seven years after, the CHR released its “Inputs on Access to Justice of Persons with Disabilities in the Philippines” on May 3, 2017 in response to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UHCHR) questionnaire on access to justice of persons with disabilities. The CHR observed that the Supreme Court had authorized trial court judges, through the Office of the Court Administrator, to engage the services of sign language interpreters in 2007. It was in recognition that there are “parties or witnesses who, to be fully understood and to prevent possible miscarriage of justice, may require a sign language interpreter.” By 2012, there were over 2,000 court employees designated as Court Interpreters in trial courts throughout the country. However, there were no such counterparts for sign language interpreting.
In its 2017 response, the CHR noted that there were also no specific institutional budget items for the compensation of services of sign language interpreters. According to the report, “Of 213 cases from 2006-2012 involving deaf parties, only 24% have appointed court interpreters. Of 63 cases of unschooled deaf parties requiring deaf relay interpreters, 75% have no interpreter.”
The issue of access to justice is particularly challenging to women and girls with disabilities. In 2015, the Philippine Alliance of Women with Disabilities, a subset of member organizations of the Philippine Coalition on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities documented gender-based violence among women with disabilities in the Philippines and the problems that women with disabilities are confronted with. The Alliance noted that while each court in the country “has virtually a full-time position for Court Interpreter who provides services for spoken languages, there are no such State personnel or provisions for deaf women and children (where rape is as common among one out of three women, or 65-70% cases of sexual abuse of deaf girls).” The Alliance also noted that “even where there may be awareness to provide sign language interpreting, the police, office of the prosecutor, and trial courts rely completely on civil society for the provision of those services…” and “in the few instances that this accessibility is provided, it is characterized by uninformed and bureaucratic service coordination, and unreliable compensation of sign language interpreters (if at all).”
The issues surrounding PWDs’ access to justice in the Philippines was addressed by the enactment of RA No. 11106 or the Filipino Sign Language (FSL) Act on Oct. 30, 2018. Under the law, Filipino Sign Language is declared as the national sign language of the Philippines and therefore, “the medium of official communication in all transactions involving the deaf, and as the language of instruction of deaf education, without prejudice to the use of other forms of communication depending on individual choice or preference.”
Filipino Sign Language is mandated as the official language of legal interpretation for the deaf in all public hearings, proceedings, and transactions of the courts, quasi-judicial agencies, and other tribunals. The Filipino Sign Language Law (FSL) requires quasi-judicial agencies and other tribunals to ensure the availability of a qualified sign language interpreter in all proceedings involving the deaf “to ensure effective access to justice for the deaf on an equal basis with others and to facilitate their effective role as direct and indirect participants in the legal system.”
One year and 13 days today after FSL became a law, can we see any improvement in the plight of our brothers and sisters who are either hearing-impaired or deaf?
Diana J. Mendoza, PhD, is Chair of the Department of Political Science at the Ateneo de Manila University.