By Mikhail Franz E. Flores, VERA Files
On May 13 next year, persons with disabilities (PWDs) will no longer have to worry about climbing a flight of stairs in order to cast their votes in the midterm elections.
The Commission on Elections (Comelec) has issued a resolution which will, among others, provide PWDs with accessible voting areas.
PWD groups welcomed the move and urged Comelec to conduct an information campaign among PWD voters to encourage them to vote.
Resolution 9485 instructs election officers (EO) to assign ground floor rooms to regular polling precincts with registered PWD voters. For polling places that have PWD voters who cannot all be accommodated at the ground floor, the EO will recommend the creation of an accessible polling place (APP).
"The accessible polling place should be established in an area spacious enough to accommodate more than 10 PWD voters at a given time and considers the mobility requirements of PWDs particularly those who are wheelchair users," the resolution said.
"The accessible polling place, as far as practicable, shall be free of any physical barriers and provides the necessary mobility, communications, visual and other forms of assistance for the PWDs," it added.
A Special Board of Election Inspectors for PWDs (SBEI-PWD) and support staff will also be deployed to facilitate the voting of PWDs in the APPs and the transfer of the ballots from the regular precincts to the APPs. When Comelec could not designate a ground floor voting precinct and PWDs vote in APPs, the SBEI-PWD will drop their ballots in the PCOS (precinct count optical scan) machine in their respective precincts for them
Under the resolution, the support staff will collect the ballots of PWD voters from their regular precincts to the accessible polling places. The support staffs are also assigned to return the ballots to the regular BEIs of the regular precincts of the PWD.
In this case, PWDs will not be able to enter their ballots in the PCOS machines.
The PWDs, especially those with visual impairment, originally wanted to be allowed to insert the ballots themselves. But Comelec said it would be "operational nightmare" if ballots were to be transferred from one polling precinct to another on election day.
The Comelec resolution covers people with physical, hearing, speech, visual and nonmanifest disabilities. Nonmanifest refers to "conditions that are not immediately apparent but may need assistance from Comelec."
State Solicitor Jessica Magbanua said she is amenable to the establishment of APPs. As PWDs, they would "As PWDs, we try to be as normal as we can get. We like to be treated equally, but we know that there are times when the security of the ballot will be compromised," Magbanua said during Comelec consultation with PWDs on June 22.
Manuel Agcaoili, chair of Alyansa ng may Kapansanang Pinoy (AKAP-Pinoy), said the resolution "would certainly encourage PWDs to exercise their right to suffrage" and
called for an information campaign about the resolution "for more PWDs to know about it."
He said, however, the resolution is "limited to those who have already been acknowledged" based on Comelec's files. Many have not updated their files, which means that these PWDs cannot vote in the APPs, he said.
Only those who have registered or updated their records and indicated their disability will be allowed to vote in the APPs.
PWDs who have not updated their registration records will vote in their original precincts. But they will still be provided an express lane and an assistor in their regular polling place, according to the resolution.
AKAP-Pinoy, together with the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting, plans to put up an online help desk to monitor problems in areas where the 450 PWD organizational members under AKAP-Pinoy are based, Agcaoili said.
Emer Rojas, sectoral representative of PWDs in the National Anti-Poverty Commission and head of the New Vois Association of the Philippines, cited the significance of the Comelec resolution:
"Now the PWD sector may have a voice in the choice of the civil servants they wish to see both in the local and national positions."
Rojas said they hope the implementation of the resolution will be successful nationwide since this is the first time it will be done by Comelec.
"The PWD sector will be cooperating with Comelec on the implementation," he said.
APPs will also be provided with assistors and communication and visual assistance. Qualified assistors include relatives up to the fourth degree, a trusted household member or a member of the SBEI-PWD.
Since special registrations started this year, Comelec has recorded 24,000 PWDs that have registered or updated their records with Comelec.
Latest data from the poll agency show 24,573 PWDs have registered as of June 12.
Region VII (Central Visayas) tops the list with 5,256 PWD registrants followed by Region IV-A (Calabarzon) with 4,167, Region V (Bicol) with 2,242 and Region VIII (Eastern Visayas) with 2,238.
Region IV-B (Mimaropa) has the lowest turnout with 248 followed by Region 12 (Socksargen) with 295.
Comelec has also rescheduled the National PWD Registration Day to Aug. 11.
A Social Weather Stations survey on PWDs found that 64 percent of those who participated in the 2010 elections said they were satisfied with Comelec's efforts to ensure that there were special lanes for PWDs, while 15 percent were undecided and 20 percent dissatisfied.
Seven in 10 said they were satisfied with the poll body's overall performance of its duties in 2010 and 77 percent also expressed satisfaction with the information it provided on voter registration.
The UN Convention on the Rights of PWDs and the country's Magna Carta for PWDs guarantee the right of PWDs to to vote and stand for election to public office as part of their participation in public and political life.
(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.")