Living and achieving with children with disabilities
by Mario Cabrera
MANDALUYONG CITY, PHILIPPINES – "A year ago, we were simply happy to hear them play the 'Happy Birthday' tune. Today we are just amazed at how they are able to easily learn and perform one musical piece after another."
Wennah Marquez, officer-in-charge of Mandaluyong City's Persons with Disabilities Affairs Division, brims with pride at the impromptu performance of their drum and lyre corps, mostly composed of young boys and girls with disabilities. Some of the children are joined in the performance by a brother or a sister. "Giving them the opportunity to play music together is one of the best ways to strengthen bonds among siblings. This is particularly important in the case of children with disabilities," adds Marquez.
Expert studies show that given the same opportunities as others, children with disabilities can equally contribute to the social, cultural and economic vitality of their communities. Realizing this, public programs such as this are increasingly finding ways to make the rehabilitation of children with disabilities more "inclusive"; that is, welcoming them as peers in our communities' day-to-day activities.
Census data in the Philippines show there were 201,896 reported children with disabilities in 2002, with about 2.9 per cent of households with some form of disability. Vision-related disabilities recorded highest at 50 per cent, followed by motor-related and mental (both at 14 per cent), and hearing (13 per cent).
New perception needed
In its recently published State of the World’s Children 2013, UNICEF, the UN children's agency, notes that inclusion of children with disabilities in community affairs requires a change of perception—recognizing that children with disabilities have rights, and understanding that their active presence and voice will improve society as a whole. They need to be a part, rather than apart, the report says.
The UNICEF publication, which gives a broad picture of the situation of children with disabilities across the world, points out that if society continues to see the disability before the child, the risk of their exclusion from society remains.
Policy-wise, the Philippines does not lag behind many countries, having been an early signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Its commitment to these two conventions is supported by national legislation and local ordinances that uphold the rights of these sectors. However, much still has to be done.
Programs for children with disabilities
In 1998, Mandaluyong became the first Philippine city to create an office for persons with disabilities (PWDs). In 2009, it issued free identification cards to city residents with disabilities, allowing a more accurate registry and monitoring of PWDs in the city. This, likewise, proved beneficial in the early diagnosis of children with potential disabilities. Project TEACH, short for Therapy, Education and Assimilation of Children with Handicap, is a leading initiative for children with disabilities here.
Through a therapy center headed by a developmental pediatrician and staffed by therapists and trained volunteers, it is able to provide evaluation, diagnostic and regular therapy services to children with various types of disabilities. TEACH was cited in 2012 as an outstanding local governance program by Galing Pook Foundation for its community-based rehabilitation program that has helped enhance the skills of CWDs here.
Jericho Pedro, 9, a member of the drum and lyre corps, was diagnosed with a learning disability, later confirmed as autism, when he was 4. After years of special education and therapy at TEACH, he is now ready to step up to Grade 1 in a regular school. His mother has become a volunteer at TEACH. As she counsels other parents, she tells them: "I'll help your children, but you should also learn to help them."
"In order to serve them effectively, it is only necessary for us to continually train our people in the needs of PWDs," says Marquez. "These include not just our office staff but also those in the frontline, like community workers, policemen, and others. One such training they received recently was on basic sign language to enable them to effectively communicate with and serve the deaf."
Beyond these services are a host of other offerings, vocational and recreational. Indeed, some City Hall staff and their relatives generously share their time and talents in conducting vocational and recreational activities for the children. Aside from drum and lyre, their regular recreational activities for the children include training on pastel art and drawing, football, choir singing, popular dance and other activities.
Sharing good practices
Still, Mandaluyong City's disabilities affairs office would gladly give their time to share with other local government units (LGUs) good practices and projects that have worked well for them.
Just recently, Marquez says, they trained the disabilities staff of other LGUs in the ways of custom-fitting wheelchairs for children based on their physical constitution and nature and level of disability.
This certainly takes service for children with disabilities to a higher level, not just giving them what we think they need, but making sure that these indeed serve them well, and help them function as equals among us.
State of the World's Children 2013: Children with Disabilities