Enabling the disabled | Roderick Abad

EMPOWERING persons with disability (PWDs) is everybody’s business. They need to be supported and, at all times, given equal importance and opportunities as what most others enjoy, whether at home, in the community, school or workplace.

Despite this, however, the sad reality is that many differently abled people are often stereotyped, experience discrimination, suffer from stigma and misunderstanding, get isolated, and, much worse, are violated or abused, not only by people not related to them or total strangers, but also by those with  affinity or consanguinity to them.

Upper left is Krissy Bisda, moderator of the session, GEDSI advocate and consultant of PBDN, and also a person with visual impairment. Upper right is John Nicholls, Country Site Lead of PayPal Philippines; lower left is Pilar Baltazar, Head for Finance and Investment Operations of Manulife Business Processing Services; and lower right is Jennifer Lagasca, HR Manager of Asurion Techlog Center.

Such concerns can have a deep and wide-reaching impact on their lives. These hold true for Liza Sales, a warehouse staff in a pharmaceutical company with orthopedic disability; Sareena Calonzo, a deaf fraud analyst; and Roilan Marlang, a marketing associate who has autism—all had difficulty finding employment due to their conditions.

“After college, I looked for a job in line with my coursework: computer design and programming. Every time I passed an exam and training, a lot of companies wouldn’t hire me because of their preconceived notion that I wasn’t fit for the job,” Sales recalled during the first leg of the recent two-day virtual conference dubbed “Working Beyond Barriers” organized by the Philippine Business & Disability Network (PBDN).

Sharing a similar ordeal with her, Marlang remembered that he almost gave up searching for jobs: “I applied to 90 companies in Metro Manila… until Project Inclusion Network (PIN) helped me with my employment.”

At work, Calonzo initially was not at ease on site, citing that “when I started working, at first I didn’t feel comfortable because there were gestures that I couldn’t understand. Sometimes it seems that they are looking down at me, but in reality I just want them to be aware of how to approach people like me.”

From left: Grant Javier of Project Inclusion Network (Technical Secretariat of PBDN), Jennifer Lagasca of Asurion, Rich An Cruz of IBM, Panya Boonsirithum of Citihub, John Nicholls of PayPal, and Pixie Javier-Gutierrez of JPMorgan Chase & Co.

Given these common PWD experiences, John Nicolls, country site lead of PayPal Philippines, has called for immediate action to push diversity and inclusion (D&I) in the workplace, considering the manifold threats they are facing today, especially with the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I think what we have to get in our head is there’s no truly right time, except for right now,” he appealed to the business community during the event’s panel discussion. “It’s right to do it now. We have to take the risks and reap the benefits. Prepare and plan as best as you can, but also look out for those who can help you on your journey.”

Closer look at PWDs

GLOBAL perspective looks at disability in four molds.

First is the Charity Model, where people often think that PWDs are objects of philanthropy or benevolence. In the Medical Model, on the other hand, people tend to lean on the impairment of the person and help them to “fix” him to function. The Social Model is where PWDs are able to live in an inclusive society. Lastly, the Rights-based Model espouses recognition of the laws and policies for the disabled.

Suffice it to say, but incapacitated individuals, like the three PWD panelists, abhor the first two models.

Disagreeing with the first model, for instance, Nicolls reiterated, “the private sector is not a charity. We can’t be a charity. That’s not how we operate. We expect the same level of performance from those with disabilities as those without disabilities. So we are willing to invest to make sure that that is a level playing field.”

Unless the glass ceiling is totally broken, especially in the workplace like in the above case of PayPal Philippines, such inclusivity fallacies will continue for PWDs.

“Business leaders are essential to change the perceptions about persons with disabilities when it comes to [employing them] because still too often misconceptions about what a person with disabilities can and cannot do at work are prevalent,” International Labor Organization Global Business and Disability Network Disability Inclusion Officer Jurgen Menze noted.

Enabling laws, platforms

TRUE to its love for democracy and Christian faith, the Philippines champions D&I through the implementation of various laws and policies to better serve the rights and interests of its citizens with disabilities and special needs. There is Republic Act (RA) 7277, the Magna Carta for Persons with Disabilities, which details the incentives provided by the government to private establishments that hire PWDs.

This law was later amended to RA 9442 and RA 10754, which espouse their benefits and privileges, and the Batas Pambansa Bilang 344 or the Accessibility Law.

Responding to the request of the Special Committee on Persons with Disabilities, Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) Secretary Bienvenido E. Laguesma said in a recent newspaper report that his office had submitted comments on different House of Representatives bills aimed at changing RA 7277, specifically on the employment quota.

“In that letter, he said that he expressed support to increase from 1 percent to at least 2 percent all positions in all government agencies to be reserved for PWDs and deleting the word ‘encourage’ and putting the word ‘mandating’ private corporations with more than 100 employees to reserve at least 1 percent of all positions for PWDs. So we strongly support this measure,” DOLE’s Bureau of Workers with Special Concerns Director IV Atty. Karen Trayvilla noted.

“Hopefully that is passed,” Atty. Krizelle Ramos, chief of the Programs Management Division of the National Council on Disability Affairs, said, while adding the importance of Equal Opportunity for Employment (RA 10524) law, which endeavors to eliminate discrimination against and increase opportunities for PWDs.

Apart from these policies, there are also several government programs such as the PESO Employment Information System, Government Internship Program, Trabaho Negosyo Kabuhayan, DOLE Integrated Livelihood program, and DOLE’s Employees’ Compensation Commission’s Katulong at Gabay Sa Manggagawang May Kapansanan program.

While these measures are in place, there remain underlying concerns on work inclusivity and equal chances for PWDs. These could be due to their limited enforcement, and the lack  monitoring and clarity, thus leading to persisting barriers in the attitudinal, physical, communication and institutional aspects.

“We have a collective responsibility. Upscaling inclusivity of the workplace for persons with disability is a goal toward the right direction,” Trayvilla pointed out.

PWD-friendly entities

BELIEVING that PWDs can be potential assets rather than liabilities, more and more businesses in the country strive for inclusivity in the workplace by giving opportunities to them. Case in point are PayPal Philippines, Manulife and Asurion Technology Philippines. Their journey, however, was not a smooth, easy ride since they had no idea where and how to begin with at first.

“We have a very strong track record globally in terms of diversity and inclusion. We wanted to make sure that PayPal Philippines also reflected that team strength,” Nicolls said. “But when we look at our D&I spectrum, really the big gap for us initially was very much the disability strand and so that’s where we have the biggest opportunity.”

As a headstart, they tapped the deaf community, being one of the largest disability groups yet very much underrepresented in career-driven industries like theirs. Often, they have little potential for career development as they usually are given short-term contracts.

“We wanted to prove that we could create a sustainable model to access deaf talents and prove that [they are] equal to their hearing counterparts,” he said. “So we make what we call ‘equity tweaks’, allowing us to level the playing field.”

Like PayPal Philippines, Asurion, likewise, had no inkling as to how they will work with the disability sector for the first time in 2017, bared Human Resource Manager Jen Lagasca, who has a child with special needs. Taking a cue from the success of Unilab’s Project Inclusion, they also did not fail in assimilating their deaf hires with their regular employees, which, hopefully, they will replicate now for persons with autism spectrum disorder.

“We have a lot of sensitivity disability training. And then we have to make follow through what they think about it, what are their realizations. In the long run, we have to trust the process that these people, our employees, will be practicing empathy and they will have their self-realization that there’s a beauty as well as difficulties, but the intangible benefit of having people work with you with different abilities entailed a different level of gratitude,” she explained.

“That’s the best thing that any culture will have because they say that they can actually belong and we gave that chance. And we actually are also helping. We are kinder now. Many of our workers, even the leaders, would be kinder and more patient because of them,” she added.

There are manifold ways for employers to break down barriers for PWDs. That’s actually a part of Manulife’s DNA as reflected in its “Sharing Our Humanity” core value. As part of its corporate culture, the firm established in April 2020 an Ability Employee Resource Group that works with HR and the facility’s team to attract and provide reasonable accommodation for PWD talents.

“So part of our journey was actually establishing long-term partnerships with local NGOs and institutions to help and guide us onboard PWDs and also to refer talent for hiring,” Manulife Philippines Service Delivery Head Pilar Baltazar said of their partnership with PIN, Saint Benilde’s School of Deaf and Applied Studies, and PBDN.

“Personally I also self-identify as an ability talent. I have one of the more silent disabilities—I am dyslexic,” she confessed. “So I make sure that I can function in a work environment by simplifying. But when I simplify, that actually delivers business value in terms of efficiency in how we operate and it also helps make things simpler to our customers if we’re thinking about the employee, the customer or the user.”

Despite the many success stories on diversity and inclusion in the workplace, there remain challenges to address to broaden the opportunities for the marginalized sectors in society like the PWDs.

“I don’t think our journey with the disability sector in the Philippines is over yet. I know there are still a lot of organizations out there that we hope to partner with…. We have just started our journey and I’m very excited because we are seeing so many more talent pool [from them],” Baltazar said.

Having that strong knowledge base to identify ways for meaningful inclusion in the design and the delivery of programs and services for PWDs, Trayvilla stressed that “everybody gains from disability inclusion” while imparting that “alone, we can do so little; together, we can do so much.”

Image credits: PBDN

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