Message at the ASEAN Disability Forum (ADF) Conference
Mr. Ngin Saorath, Chair of the ASEAN Disability Forum (ADF); Ms. Maulani Rotinsulu, Vice Chair of ADF; Mr. Lauro Purcil, President of the Center for Advocacy, Learning and Livelihood (CALL); Ms. Aiko Akiyama, focal point person of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific; Dr. Seree Nonthasoot, Thailand representative to the ASEAN Inter-Governmental Commission on Human Rights; Mr. Aian Caringal, Director of the ASEAN Socio-cultural Community Division, DFA Office of ASEAN Affairs; members of the ADF Steering Council; members of the ADF Secretariat; leaders of the DPOs present; representatives from the Philippine National School for the Blind (PNSB); fellow workers in government; distinguished guests: Good morning. Magandang umaga sa inyong lahat.
Thank you very much for having me today. It is always such an honor to speak before you about something very close to my heart. If there is ever a time to talk about concrete actions for pushing inclusivity for persons with disabilities, it is now.
Just a month ago, the Philippines hosted the 50th ASEAN Summit. I was invited to speak at the ASEAN Business and Investment Summit on creating an inclusive business environment for all—regardless of age, class, gender, and disability. I mentioned that the problem of inclusivity is everyone’s job because inequality has bred a kind of anger and frustration that has never existed with scorched-earth impact as before. This anger and frustration is now at the heart of global power shifts, wars and turmoil, and humanitarian crises around the world.
The ASEAN has always done its part in fighting this kind of global problem. It has made significant strides over the past decades in providing its people with equitable access to opportunities for human development, social welfare, and justice. We have seen improvements in the plight of our people, laws passed against discrimination, and better access to employment and livelihood opportunities.
However, despite these efforts in the ASEAN region, poverty continues to be a challenge. Many are unable to afford or access proper nutrition, health care, decent housing, and equality in opportunities. Sadly, persons with disabilities still find it hard to maximize their abilities. In the Philippines, there is an estimated 10 to 15 million persons with disabilities. Approximately half of them are of working age. But despite the laws that protect their rights, they continue to be an untapped human resource.
For many years, I have witnessed the plight of those in the fringes of society. I have seen so many Filipinos unable to work because they remain at risk and vulnerable to sickness and calamities with no immediate medical facility to address their needs. But I have also met people who rose above their struggles and proved that disabilities can be turned into abilities.
One of them was Fe Carranza, a woman whose leg was affected by polio when she was young. I remember noticing her for the first time, a few years ago, back when I was still heavily involved in Naga City’s women empowerment programs. Naga City is a city in the southern part of Manila, about 8 to 10 hours away by car.
Fe was then trying to start her service tricycle with her good leg—meaning she had to twist her body around facing the rear so she can use her normal left leg to push the right-sided pedal. I was amazed. What strength she lacked in her right leg, her big heart and oversized courage made up for, many times over. When I talked to Fe, she told me how she first tried to do business by selling vegetables in a private market, but it didn’t work out. By some stroke of luck, some college students from another province sought shelter in her house when they got caught in a typhoon, and cooked tofu while waiting for the storm to pass.
That was how she first learned the skill that would change her life forever. Fe eventually became one of the most successful micro-entrepreneurs in Naga City, and her business expanded to selling not only tofu, but also soya milk, nutri-milk, and so many other soya-based food products. Now, she has a multi-million peso contract with the government of the Philippines, because she is already providing for feeding programs in many of our public schools.
An environment that refuses to exclude anyone – most of all those who by birth or by circumstance find themselves different from the rest of the world – does not happen by accident. We all have to create that environment.
We, at the Office of the Vice President, believe that when our people, men and women, persons with disabilities, young and old, are empowered with skills and abilities like Fe, they have a better chance of lifting themselves from poverty. Under our flagship program called Angat Buhay, we seek to provide the marginalized with sustainable jobs and livelihood with the help of our private and development partners.
Through Angat Buhay, we met Norlan Pagal from San Remigio, Cebu. His job was to patrol the seas for the rural fishing community. For decades, he actively fought for the protection of their shores from illegal fishers and criminals. The tenacity and passion with which he worked and his tireless commitment caught the ire of many illegal fishers.
Norlan’s enemies turned to violence after he brought them to the authorities. They threatened him and beat him up, but this did not work. So, they turned to guns. One afternoon in 2015, on his way home, Norlan was shot by one of the men he had brought to the authorities for illegal fishing. Though the shot was not fatal, Norlan’s spine was hit, paralyzing his legs.
Despite his condition, Norlan remains an active advocate of non-destructive fishing. When RARE, an Angat Buhay partner, launched their campaign for sustainable fisheries in San Remigio, Cebu, Norlan was one of the volunteers who joined the community discussions.
Norlan’s family struggled to make ends meet. He did not even have a wheelchair of his own. Norlan always had to borrow wheelchairs whenever he needed to leave the house. With the help of the Cebu Provincial Health Office and Physicians for Peace, both Angat Buhay partners, Norlan was given free medical consultation and a new wheelchair.
Despite everything he has been through, Norlan remains steadfast in his advocacy: the protection and rehabilitation of the waters of San Remigio. Norlan would often say: “Hindi naman kailangan na maging bayani tayo sa buong bansa. Kahit sa ating komunidad lang.“ (We don’t need to be a hero for the entire country. We just need to do something selfless for our communities.)
If we want our societies to achieve inclusive and sustainable growth, we need to harness the potential of our people, most especially, persons with disabilities. We need to create more opportunities for them to become future community leaders and collaborative problem solvers, by developing their abilities to lead, to innovate, to create, and to collaborate. If we do not give them the chance to succeed in life, we would do them a great disservice to our world.
That is why I am looking forward to the results of this conference. I am certain that as you find ways to collaborate together, we can put our plans into concrete action towards creating more inclusive communities across ASEAN and across the world. Communities that celebrate the unique gift and abilities of each person. Communities that stand up for love, empathy and compassion.
There is still much to be done, but nothing is impossible if we work together with open hands and with generous hearts.
May we continue to reach out to the last, the least and the lost, because they deserve our best.
Thank you very much for having me this morning, mabuhay po kayong lahat. Magandang umaga po.