Adapting abled society

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar - The Philippine Star

The first Paralympic games were held in 1960, in Rome, Italy, although they had been occurring since 1948 under another name. Since 1998, the Paralympics have used the same facilities as the Olympic Games, and in 2001 the International Olympic Committee made it official that every city that bids to host the Olympics also bids to hold the Paralympics in tandem that same year. The goal was likely to encourage a similar treatment of the Paralympics as its more illustrious sibling.

In practice, that hasn’t quite been the case. The Paralympics in general receives much less media coverage than the Olympics. A lot of the media coverage around the Paralympics has also been historically problematic, framing Paralympians as “overcoming” their disability in order to “participate” in a sport, rather than treating them as exceptional athletes.

This type of stereotypical coverage tends to use the Paralympian as inspirational material while advancing the flawed narrative that sheer effort is enough to cancel out the effects of disabilities, something which is wildly misrepresentative of the reality of many of the world’s disabled. In a way, the disparity of the treatment between Olympics and Paralympics, Olympians and Paralympians, sheds some light on the parallel-yet-different treatment of abled and disabled persons.

There have been people with physical or mental impairments since the dawn of humanity, but the movement to assure that those impairments do not interfere with their equal participation in society and its rights is a recent one. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) is less than 20 years old, having been adopted in 2006. This is in spite of the fact that the disabled make up a significant number of the world’s population: According to data from the United Nations, around 15 percent of the world’s population live with disabilities. Eighty percent of those persons with disabilities live in developing countries. Based on the 2016 National Disability Prevalence Survey, around 12 percent of Filipinos aged 15 and older in the households surveyed experienced severe disability, and almost a third of those surveyed who were 60 or older experienced severe disability.

We use the term “disability” but it’s important to be aware that it is a complex, evolving and contested term. There have been different disability models, or ways of thinking about disability, that have evolved through the years. One of the earliest and most heavily criticized models, the Individual Model, is still prevalent today: disability is seen as a problem found in the individual, with the disabled person seen as a passive recipient of cures or rehab from medical experts. But this view ignores the role that society and environment play in placing those with impairment at a disadvantage.

A more equitable way of looking at disability is the Social Model. The CRPD  provides an inclusive definition of persons with disabilities as “those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which, in interaction with various barriers, may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.”

This definition no longer makes disability a matter solely of the individual. Instead, it distinguishes between the impairment of the body or mind, and the barriers or obstacles in the environment that make those with these impairments unable to participate in society equally with abled persons.

This distinction is important because disability is no longer an individual’s problem to be solved, but a social one – society must be made to adapt to the needs of those with impairments so that they are not left out of society. Of course, the effect of these impairments on the individual cannot be ignored, and access to medical aid and rehabilitation must be a part of any pro-PWD policy.

But in many cases, what makes a person “disabled” is caused by the refusal of society to take their needs into account: a second floor only accessible by stairs is inaccessible to a person using a wheelchair, but one with a rampway is not; a document without braille is illegible to a blind person, but one with it is not.

This is all the more important in the event of an emergency, as the COVID-19 pandemic has made  abundantly clear. Persons with disabilities have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic: the barriers that already made life difficult for PWDs, which made it more difficult to get an education, or find employment, or petition for government assistance, were greatly exacerbated by the pandemic and quarantine restrictions. Not every impairment would allow for access to remote learning, and this led to many disabled students no longer attending classes. A survey conducted by the Project Inclusion Network NGO revealed a significant number of PWD may have been unable to receive social amelioration funds because they could not properly register or could not find a person to assist them in reaching the distribution site.

There is much that we need to do to ensure we do not leave our PWDs behind. There are moves already in Congress to better enable schools to accommodate disabled learners, to make PWD IDs have lifetime validities and to make it easier for PWDs to access public transportation.

But there must also be a fundamental shift in both policy and mindset, to completely integrate the needs and concerns of PWDs with that of the mainstream. How many government offices are completely accessible to wheelchairs? How many important laws and regulations are simultaneously released in a form that the visually impaired will be able to understand? How many abled persons think of the special needs brought about by the spectrum of impairments when they start a business, erect a building or make a rule?

As we near the International Day for Persons with Disabilities, it’s important to realize that disability is a part of the human condition. It touches upon all our lives, and it is a condition that each and every one of us may find ourselves in at some point in our lives. The Magna Carta for Disabled Persons declares that disabled persons are part of Philippine society, with the same rights as the rest of us… but this principle and promise is empty unless Philippine society adapts to the impairments of our brothers and sisters.

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