"I'm not rebellious": Abner Manlapaz, lifelong rebel

Finding disability rights and fighting for them, plus the Philippines elections
A photograph of Abner, a Phllippinian man, sitting in a wheelchair, half-smiling in a knowing way towards camera. Abner has dark circular glasses and is wearing jeans with a black Guns N’ Roses Manila t-shirt and a neck-scarf in red and yellow colours matching the t-shirt illustration. He has tattoos on his upper arms, and the background is green vegetation with an elegant stone wall.
Abner Manlapaz

Hey Debriefers,

Abner Manlapaz is one of brilliant people I meet through my work. At the same time as leading an organization of disabled people in the Philippines, he makes important contributions to international work.

In this interview we explore how the journey with his own disability led into working on disability rights, how the covid crisis has affected people with disabilities in the Philippines, and how Abner advocates with government to change it.

Results from yesterday's elections in the Philippines show that Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is on track for a big win: the son of a dictator beats the vice-president and human-rights lawyer Leni Robredo. Abner guides us through some of the access and representation issues that were in play for disabled people.

If you missed the last edition, catch up with Áine on disabled people planning for a green and accessible future.

Abner and I first met on the Geneva conference circuit in 2015. Since then he's one of the people I call whenever I need some real talk about the situation of disabled people. But in all those work calls, I didn't know how he'd come to disability rights.

The conversation starts from Abner as a teenager, recently acquired a disability, and not sure what it will mean for his future:

“I didn’t know whether I can finish schooling, or if I can get a job, or have a relationship, get married, and have children, children that I can support so that they can also finish their schooling. So I have no idea, because I have no role model. I have no clue what life will look like.”

As advocates we're often so busy trying to change other people we don't always speak about how we were changed ourselves. At several points Abner describes how meeting other disabled people gave him role models, and showed him the life he could lead. Involvement in the disability movement changed his life.

Along the way, Abner manages to get expelled from a residential institution for disabled people, “just,” in his words, for “bringing issues to their attention”. Leading a breakaway with a friend who was expelled at the same time, and others that left in protests, they formed a breakaway cooperative to create livelihood opportunities and a place they could live.

Tracing through the twists and turns that led to where Abner is today, we then catch up on the situation of disabled people in the Philippines, and the effects that the covid crisis has had. There has been a profound economic impact, changing lives:

“A huge negative impact on many persons with disabilities and their families. People are trying to survive in this new situation that we all have.  What I observed with many people that I know was that they were able to adapt.

People with disabilities are creative enough to be able to survive any situation because of the hardship.  We are very resilient people with all the barriers that we face on a daily basis. If you survive that, then you will survive anything.”

This wasn't the case for all disabled people of course, and there are many where it hasn't been possible to get information on how people are doing. Many did not even receive the limited government supports that had been available. Abner and I are nerds about this kind of thing, so this point takes us into a discussion of government policy on social benefits and exploring the financing questions and reluctance that stops them doing more.

As for the elections, Abner describes the barriers to access information during the campaigns and the likely access problems that would come up in the elections. These were born out yesterday by voters facing extremely long queues in the heat. We explore how the party-list system, meant to support representation of minority communities, ends up creating competition between these communities and that people outside of the disability movement were put forward as candidates to represent disabled people.

One candidate that Abner did support was Carmen Zubiaga, a wheelchair user and former director of the National Council on Disability Affairs. She ran for a senate position outside of the party-list system. For Abner, she was a genuine candidate, from the disability movement and representing disabled people. Carmen tweeted some pictures of access while voting. Initial results show Carmen won almost 2 million votes, but not enough to be among the twelve elected senators.

I took the opportunity to reflect with Abner on the way we work on disability internationally. Abner describes how support from foreign donors could do more for realization of disabled people's rights if it supported the strategic priorities identified by national organizations.

We close the conversation with Abner sharing where he keeps getting the energy to rebel – sorry, I mean, the energy to keep bringing issues to people's attention:

“You cannot exhaust the energy that are available in our surroundings. And, for me, renewing this energy requires me to go down to the community and to meet the people that I am representing. This is the source of my energy. Seeing their situation makes me not to stop.”

About the newsletter

I'm Peter Torres Fremlin, and I make Disability Debrief to understand disability in a changing world. Disability Debrief is supported by readers. This edition is produced with support from CBM Global.

I love when people share the newsletter or get in touch - reply, leave a comment, or find me on twitter @desibility.

Full conversation with Abner

We spoke on zoom, during the election campaigns. Here is our conversation edited for clarity.

“I have no clue what life will look like.”

Peter: I know a little bit about your disability story, that you became disabled at 16, but I don't know how you came to disability rights?

Abner: When I acquired my disability, I didn’t know whether I can finish schooling, or if I can get a job, or have a relationship, get married, and have children, children that I can support so that they can also finish their schooling. So I have no idea, because I have no role model. I have no clue what life will look like.

I was really depressed during that time. There was a social worker who works for a foundation supporting us, because my mother is Vietnamese, and some Vietnamese people in Philippines are receiving support from this foundation for a scholarship. So this social worker, when she found out that I have acquired a disability, she encouraged me to get rehabilitation. They refer us to this big hospital for rehabilitation. And then encouraged me to continue studying. I was really embarrassed because of my disability…

Peter: Was it a traffic accident that led to your disability?

Abner: No, I acquired an illness. It's called Guillain-Barré syndrome. It's a Guillain-Barré syndrome. It's a virus. It a kind of flu virus actually, that are mutated. That's when I acquired my disability and started using wheelchair. So I was referred to this residential institution.

Before being admitted to the residential institution, I really don't want to go to school because of the people telling me... all this stigma about my condition. Based on the diagnosis of the doctor, there is a huge chance for me to be able to walk again. But it's this whole statement that, it's up to you if you can get back to your old self. So that means I have to strive. This is the messaging.

And so the family believes that. The people around me believes that because my family will tell them the diagnosis. There's a lot of pressure. And people talk about me whenever I pass on their houses, when they're in the street, so I am very embarrassed.

A residential institution: “opened up a new life for me”

This social worker tried to encourage me. And so what happened is that I was admitted into a residential institution. They have many institution, they have sheltered workshop, and many residential institution. I accepted it just because they are really very persistent.

I think that opened up a new life for me, because I met many person who uses wheelchair. I found a role model. They were able to finish schooling, they have their family. So, I think I can survive this new life that I have now.

But the residential institution was not very supportive in terms of what kind of education I want to have. They asked, “What is it that you want to study?” And when I told them, “It's difficult. The school is very far. It's not accessible.” They discouraged me to pursue my dream. Instead, they advised me to enrol in a vocational course. So since I was young, and I really have no clue... I saw there many students there with disabilities. I accepted.

In the first school year I was elected as president of all the students. I'm like, “What?” Since they encouraged me to accept it, I accepted it. And so, my whole purpose as a president is to be the person in between the management and the students living in that dormitory.

There are many issues during that period, so I have to bring it to the attention of the management. And I had a relationship with one of the residents, but they don't approve on having a relationship with a co-resident, and so they manipulated many things so that we will break up. They talk to me. I don't know if they talk to her, but they talk to me that I must break up with her because that's not good, blah, blah, blah.

“They think I was rebelling…”

Peter: so you went through a few stages of disability while you were a teenager, from not knowing anyone, to a place where you have role models and you’re starting your advocacy career with the school authorities.

Abner: The following school year, because of the problem that I brought to them... They think that the reason why I am demanding to respond to the needs of the residents is because my girlfriend broke up with me. They think I was rebelling, so me and another resident were kicked out.

Peter: How rebellious were you?

Abner: I'm not rebellious. I was just bringing to their attention, the issue about women. They have to be carried physically to the school bus, because it's not accessible. They felt they were being violated by the driver of school bus.

And also, for example, the food is spoiling so we complain that, “The food is spoiling and we cannot eat the food”. One of the board members, I think, was able to facilitate donation of a new freezer.  But what they wanted to send this to another institution, and what they are going to do is to fix the old refrigerator. And we objected. We said, “That is for us.”

Peter: I know you as an advocate, and I think if I ran a school, I might also kick you out. Were are you organizing protests, or blockading the office?

Abner: No, no, I never do that. I was just asking for an audience and then we'll explain the issues. Maybe I did some writings to formally do that. But, no blockage, no placards, not yet. That’s for later.

A cooperative for people to be able to work

Peter: Then you get into forming a cooperative of disabled people.

Abner: We are starting these cooperative because of the experience of those who are ahead of us, they could not find a job. We thought that maybe if we are the one who will create the opportunity for people to be able to work, that will be a best solution. That's our belief.

Fortunately, when we were kicked out, some of our colleagues walked out because of the kick, so they joined us. And then we are very lucky that a Japanese benefactor sponsored our office nearby. We use that as an office, and then the two bed rooms we use as our residence. That when I started to really be involved on disability.

Peter: And you were 18 then or older?

Abner: I think I was already 20.

Peter: It's young to be starting something like this, and you didn't have much formal education.

Abner: I was second year in a vocational course. In the cooperative, we have opportunities for non-formal education to run a cooperative. I was trained in management particularly  accounting or the things in that area, because many colleagues believe that I am an honest person, and also frank, I will not be bought by corruption…

Peter: You had already been thrown out by one institution, so you're doing well.

Peter: the cooperative sounds a bit similar to an institution, it needs to be a place to sleep, a place to work, a place to get everything.

Abner: I left the cooperative because there was a fire in the community and it burned our place so we had to look for another. We had livelihood programs, but I was not working there. I work in a computer company. I am in the cooperative as a member of the board or a committee.

Peter: I saw the fire meant that you had to move home, and then there wasn't accessible transport to your work.

Abner: That's precisely what happened. I had to stop being involved in the cooperative. And also there are many corruptions that I am fighting in the cooperative. I am losing the battle because the corrupt officials are very manipulative, and people believe in manipulation, just like what we are experiencing now with the social media.

I don't want to stress my life, and it's very difficult for me to continue to be part of the cooperative. It's far from where I live now in Valenzuela, and I am working in another city, so I better focus on my job. I'm already married, and have one child during this time.

I stopped getting involved for a while until my friend, incidentally, we bumped to each other. He asked me to be a photographer at a huge Congress. I think I am the only one who has the digital camera during that time.

I was there as a support to the youth Congress. I was still part of the young people in the Philippine context, because it's up to 35. And then I was elected as a kind of officer.

Promoting accessibility and independent living

Peter: You are going to a congress and get elected. Of course you do.

Abner: Maybe a couple of months, I was hired in the party-list system because I am already unemployed. As a support staff of the party-list. The party-list is a system in the Philippines that elects sectoral representative from women, person with disability, indigenous people, something like that.

In this party list system, I met another friend of mine. We co-founded the association that is more of promoting accessibility, advocating for accessibility, monitoring, implementation of accessibility. I was invited to be co-host or most of the time, our topic is about accessibility.

Getting well-known, I met someone from Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) Foundation, and they invited me to join them, and then later on, because of all this involvement, we co-founded the national federation of person with disability called AKAP Pinoy, in English, the National Alliance of Filipinos with Disabilities.

And then because of the SCI Foundation with good connection an independent living center from Japan. I think they are the first independent living center in Japan who has a program in the Asia Pacific, in promoting and providing training to person with disability. There was a training on peer counseling and independent living seminar workshop, whereby I was lucky to be invited.

I found out it's going to be in Cebu, and mind you, during this time, I never thought that I will be able to fly. I never had any clue that it is possible for me to get on a plane and go to another place. When I was told, I actually accepted it just because of the one thing, to experience flying. Of course, in everything I do, I do my best. I did well, I think, because after the training, I received an invitation to have more training in Japan.

In Cebu, we had the first training on independent living. I like the peer counseling and independent living idea, but still, it's not very clear to me what it means for all persons with disability. And then I was in Japan. I met many people, and then I have a better understanding about independent living and accessibility also. I saw accessibility in public transportation. It gives me a new understanding of what it looks like to be an inclusive society, which I never had any clue before traveling to Japan.

This gave me new perspective and made me very convinced of the independent living that has started in the U.S. and adapted by Japanese people. I talked to my colleagues in the Philippines to establish Life Haven Center for Independent Living in 2005.

Just to start it's my colleagues from different places in Metro Manila. Before we started our activities we talked about independent living, about our life, deepening our understanding of independent living, what it means for us as a Filipino. It was after three or four years before we actually started our activity in the organization.

“We are trying hard not to leave our family”

Peter: Does independent living mean something different in Philippines from Japan or the U.S.?

Abner: In practice in Japan and in Korea, I think in U.S. too, at the start of the independent living movement, for people with disabilities to get support from the state or from the local government, they have to leave their family… Actually, I think they are forced to do that because, otherwise, they will not get the support. The government are always expecting that it's the family members who need to provide the support that person's disability needs in order to survive.

Peter: Oh, right. You have to live by yourself to be eligible?

Abner: I don't want that to happen in the Philippines. We are trying hard not to leave our family just to get the support. I'm trying not to follow the path that they went through. I think that is the simplest part: government has to intervene if a person is living alone. In our society, this is a shameful act, for not supporting people with disabilities who are being alone.

“Once they are offended, they will stop engaging with you”

Peter: You've told us about all these different types of advocacy you've done as an individual, and in organizations. What are your learnings from these 30 years of being such a strong advocate?

Abner: It is important that we do not offend the government, because once they are offended, they will stop engaging with you. That's an experience that I have. I have seen that happen to many people. This continues to happen. Some [people in government] told me that they were really afraid of me before. When we started this association for advocacy on the accessibility. We were really strong in our statement, and embarrassing the government-

We embarrassed them. Now, well, they still get embarrassed, but we use data. We present data rather than just simply pointing them out to the problem. Now we use research data as a way to show the problem, and talk about. That's a very important realization on my side. This way we were able to work more with many government agencies because we try not to really embarrass them. The advocacy is still there, still very strong in many ways, but we avoid embarrassing people too.

“It’s impossible for them to shut the door”

Peter: Your colleague, Jun, told me that during the pandemic, there were government Zoom meetings, and whether it was about disability or not, you guys would go and raise the issue, and then you would be chucked out, and not invited again. You are still pushing the limits.

Abner: Of course. There are some cases when they know our position in a certain issue and they don't want our position, then we are left out of the conversation. During the pandemic, there are some meetings that we are part of in the beginning, but later on they will stop engaging with us because ... And it's very easy for them to do that. They can reject us instead of meeting us in the Zoom meeting. Unlike before, where you can physically go there and it's impossible for them to shut the door.

There is one consultation of persons with disability about the National Health Program for persons with Disabilities, by the Department of Health. We were told in advance that the meeting venue is not accessible. They were apologizing, and said that they will provide all the support possible for us to be on the second floor of the meeting room. Of course, we said, “But this is unacceptable. You should have looked for another place, blah, blah, blah.” And then we found out that actually they are going to use the whole place – it is a kind of resort wherein many government are actually holding their conference.

When we found out about this, we said, “How come you allow this to happen. You are in full control on where the meeting venue could take place? Why not switch the meeting room of the other guys so that we can have the more accessible place?” Well, they said, “It's difficult, blah, blah, blah.” So we were organizing a protest outside, and then we'll be inviting newspaper media. I think someone squealed, maybe one of the leaders squealed to the Department of Health, so they shifted the meeting to the accessible ones.

Peter: Your lesson about needing to get along with people… you're really testing the limits of that lesson, huh?

Abner: Yeah. Sometimes in meetings, I will, kind of trick, where I will ask step by step question that will lead to CRPD [Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities] issue later on, which they cannot back out of.

“People are trying to survive in this new situation”

Peter: Let's get onto the Philippines today. We are in a different phase of COVID. I think you guys went through the Omicron in January when you got it. The schools in Philippines were closed for among the longest time in the world. There are all these economic shocks, and so many shocks to our disability community as well. What are the key issues that you are working on at the moment?

Abner: What we know about COVID's impact to people with disability, as you said, is the economic impact definitely. Has a huge negative impact on many persons with disabilities and their families. People are trying to survive in this new situation that we all have.

What I observed with many people that I know was that they were able to adapt. People with disabilities are creative enough to be able to survive any situation because of the hardship.

Peter: Someone lost one job, but now they’re doing a business, for example.

Abner: Yes. We are very resilient people with all the barriers that we face on a daily basis. If you survive that, then you will survive anything. What I am pitiful of, are the people who were never able to overcome the barriers… Because of many factors: self-pity, lack of support from family or the community, opportunity, low level of education, etc. It's very difficult for them.

For those who are able to survive, who were able to participate. – If we are going to compare them to people with no disability, of course, we have less participation, but still we were able. – For people who were able to do that, they were able to adjust already with the new situation. And I think that is because of the life experience that we have based on the discrimination that we experienced before the pandemic.

But still I'm worried with all the other people who may not be... maybe they did not survive, we don't know, because we are restricted in our home. Before the pandemic, we go to different rural areas and we're able to visit many persons with disabilities, their health condition is very bad. They don't have access to many healthcare services. Even in the city, many people we know have died already because of poor health conditions, respiratory problem, pressure sores, infections, so on and so forth. These are very common for many persons with disabilities.

We have no idea on the situation of many other people because movement is very restricted at this point of time. In the research that we are doing, I still have an opportunity to meet some families, of children with disabilities. And, definitely, their situation was really very difficult because, for example, many of them did not receive any support from the government, even though support is available, but not everyone is receiving it. So this is one problem.

In a study that my colleague did, women with disabilities are oftentimes not receiving any social assistance. They are being rejected because they are woman with disability, for example.

Peter: Why does that lead to the rejection?

Abner: Because in the social assistance, they are targeting the head of the household. But their spouse is working in another place. That's why they are left in the house. And so, one member of our organization was complaining that she was disqualified by the local officials, because according to this local official, she's not the head of the household there. They're only giving it to the head of the household. I think there is an assumption that only male could be head of the household.

Advocacy on social protection

Peter: For many years you've been working on these issues of social protection, how we get minimum benefits from the government that enable us to take our lives forward. It sounds like the COVID pandemic and the crisis really brought home the need for that kind of support. Has it led to progress in your work of convincing the government?

Abner: Before the pandemic, our government, through the support of Australian Government and UNICEF, they approved to carry out a study on costing the expenses on raising children with disabilities. The government would like to use the report to establish social protection floor, especially, on children with disability.

Note: social protection floors are what we call national social security guarantees to ensure access essential health care and basic income security.

I have been involved on the dialogue on the social protection floor. This happened because of the ILO [International Labour Organization] during one meeting in Geneva. I think that is the time when you and I met also. One of ILO person helped connect me to an ongoing dialogue of the social protection floors and I was able to bring all other colleagues from our network there, not disability focus organization.

We were able to identify many social protection floor schemes. Unfortunately, this proposed social protection floor was not approved by the previous administration, for lack of evidence on the proposal in terms of amount. That's why I think they supported this idea of a costing study on raising children with disabilities. We would like to do it for all ages, but since it is UNICEF, so they have to just limit it to children with disabilities. We are trying to get other support, but we were not able to get support to do just one big study.

In the last year, during the finalization of the new proposal, again, it was almost like the dawn of this administration, similar to what happened in the previous administration. They finalize it and they are proposing it to our government. And, unfortunately, they have to leave out persons with disabilities because of lack of evidence. That is very sad.

Peter: Is that the real reason or is that the excuse?

Abner: For me, that is only the excuse, because we have many studies that we can use as a basis for the asking. And me and my colleagues develop a policy paper very similar to the proposal on the disability support allowance amount that we made during the first dialogue on the social protection.

Peter: So what do you think is the reason?

Abner: I believe it’s the whole issue on financing. It was always the issue for persons with disability. They will make an excuse that there is no law, that there is no money. Then I will make an argument about other government programs that do not have laws, and yet there is a huge money spent allocated on it. 4Ps started [4Ps is a cash benefit programme for poor households] and it has a big budget, even though there is no law. I think they reach more than 100 billion [almost 2 billion USD]. The law was only enacted in 2019.

Peter: I see these double standards. And they’re not yet ready to make the investment on disability.

Disability issues in the elections

Peter: From outside the Philippines we are seeing the news about the presidential elections.  What are the disability issues we should know about in the campaigns and elections?

Abner: Number one is accessibility of the information. Still many deaf people complain about the lack of sign language interpreters during campaigning, during a TV interview, so they don't fully understand the kind of candidates that we have.

I am expecting that during our voting exercise, many of us, again, will experience problem on accessibility of the physical environment, and for deaf and hard of hearing, there will be no support for communication. For people with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities, they may get discriminated if there is lack of awareness by the election people in the voting precincts.

You should also know that our sector of persons with disabilities are actually preparing to participate again in the party-list system. This is the representation of the marginalized, or vulnerable sectors in our society. Unfortunately, this OPD [Organizations of Persons with Disabilities]-supported party-list was denied accreditation for technical issues by the Commission on Election.

Note: The Party-List system of representation in the House of Representatives was designed to allow representation of under-represented sectors in 20% of the seats in the House. It is a form of proportional representation where votes are made for the party, and candidates then selected from the party list. The competition is on a national basis, and the party needs 2% of the national vote to guarantee one seat. An individual voter votes for their district representative and a sectoral party-list.

In our party-list system, those who are interested to form this party-list group have to organize themselves with the support of people that you are supposed to represent. So in our case, the persons with disability, the best way to bring together persons with disabilities is through the organization of persons with disabilities. Most of the leaders nominated to be the representative in this party-list come from organizations of persons with disabilities, because that is how they are supposed to be chosen. The problem is that this group was denied accreditation.

But I was surprised that there is one party-list of persons with disabilities whose nominees no one knows. According to the short profile, they are either a parent of kids with disabilities, or they have minor disabilities themselves. But they are not known to the disability movement in the Philippines. So, for me, personally, I could not accept it because they denied legitimate group that was being supported by the disability movement. And this group is not known to us.

I heard a rumor that this group is being supported by an influential person, and accordingly by a commissioner in the Commission on Election. That's what I heard. I'm not sure if it is true. But, for me, this is not acceptable. They selected by themselves in a very small group.

Our party-list system is really a mess and violating of the intention of the law. Because the design is a problem, the system is a problem itself. The problem with system is that we have to fight with each other [between the underrepresented groups]. And if you are a vulnerable group, what does it mean to be vulnerable? For persons with disability, that means we have no resources, we have lots of barriers. So how can we win this election?

Who wins the competition is the strongest one. And, definitely, we are the weakest one because we never had a seat in the Congress. This law should be changed. There should be an assurance that each sector has to be represented in the Congress. That should be the design of the law. Not compete with each other.

And then there is another problem. Many nominees are coming with political background, who are rich families. For example, someone who are is rich, he's representing the driver's public transport, for example, tricycle. I don't know if you know tricycle. It's a motorcycle with a sidecar. It's the famous public transport all over the Philippines.

“Accepted on paper, but not in practice”

Peter: Let's move on towards reflections. You have experience at all the fancy international levels, at regional level in Asia, at national level in Philippines, and also very practically with organizations directly supporting disabled people.

Peter: Tell me about the connections and disconnections with the international work we do in disability. Does it support the national work, or are we going in some directions that aren't so helpful?

Abner: Well, sometimes there are connections, sometimes there are, of course, disconnection. For example, if we are talking about implementation of CRPD or SDG [Sustainable Development Goals], of course, there are a lot of disconnection happening, because we are into the situation where we are aspiring for something that is supposed to be existing.

In the Philippine context, it's very difficult, especially when most people will think we are a developing country, when in fact we are not a developing country anymore. We are a low middle income country that are supposed to be promoted into the next level. If not because of pandemic, we could have been the upper middle income country. Because of this understanding, financing social support has been a very difficult advocacy, especially for persons with disability.

Peter: You’re saying that the aspiration set by the international instrument is kind of not accepted in practice.

Abner: Accepted on paper but not in practice. Reported well in paper, but in practice it's not. But there are, for example, in CIP [Center for Inclusive Policy]… I'm very happy with CIP because I am having a kind of two personality, one in the international work, but I can also receive support for country level work. This is really very helpful, not only on the things that I want to happen in the Philippines, because this is my country, but also for the disability movement in the Philippines. This is very important for me, that kind of work that I have in CIP.

There are other countries who are trying to be supportive of us based on our needs. But it's not always easy and successful for us to get support. For instance, donor organization, it's really difficult to get them to support the kind of work that we want to do, to address root causes of inequalities. Until now, the kind of work that these international donors are doing is the one that is related to livelihood productivity. And, for me, without addressing the real issue of why people with disabilities are having a tough time finding job and maintaining their work is the barriers…

Peter: … what would it mean to address the root causes?

Abner: Barriers in education, accessibility, training of teachers to make sure that they don't discriminate persons with disabilities. As long as we do not support education of all children with disabilities, we continue to manufacture uneducated persons with disabilities.

Peter: is this an argument that we should focus on education more and employment less?

Abner: No. We need to have a more strategic plan to ensure that in a certain period of time, we are able to address the whole issue of education of persons with disabilities. Adults with disabilities also have real needs that we need to address. What are these real needs? It's similar to the needs of children with disabilities, issues of accessibility.

For example, in terms of public transportation, if it can be accessible in the community, then that's also good for an adult with disability. So imagine if all communities have accessible public transportation so that kids can go to the school, that also have impacted me as an adult.

Peter: when the international support is coming, it's on specific isolated things, not support that is helping realize those bigger ambitions?

Abner: International donors come to the country by identifying the country plan and they use this information as basis for what kind of support they are going to provide. I think the international donors also have to look at the report of the organization of persons with disability. What are their priorities? And support that, so that it can be implemented. The including observations can be implemented.

Note: “Parallel” reports are an opportunity for civil society to respond, or give a different perspective, on the government’s account of how it protects the rights of persons with disabilities. They are submitted to the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Peter: If you support the direction of the national organizations, then that's going to be more sustainable. You support a little bit, they carry on the journey when you have left.

Abner: And also it contributes to the implementation of CRPD in the country level. Now we are having a hard time implementing the convention because we are not receiving enough support.

“You cannot exhaust the energy that are available in our surroundings.”

Peter: It's such a pleasure to talk. Before we close, any final reflections?

Abner: You cannot achieve anything if you are not a believer of what you want to achieve. Because there will be no fuel to burn that desire. You have to be a firm believer otherwise your work might go to waste. The reason why I'm still here, even though we are having a very hard time in our advocacy work, is because I believe that this is important, and that this is possible. So don't give up on that dream.

Peter: Is the belief is like a fossil fuel, and it will run out, or do you think it is like renewable energy, like solar power?

Abner: It is a renewable energy. You cannot exhaust the energy that are available in our surroundings. And, for me, renewing this energy requires me to go down to the community and to meet the people that I am representing. This is the source of my energy. Seeing their situation makes me not to stop. How can I stop when I have not changed their situation in life? I will only stop when people are okay already.

We need to ground our feet to the community. We have to meet these people. We don't just sit down in our nice office and only read the situation of persons with disability. We have to meet them, talk with them, share stories. You share your own stories so that they can be encouraged to find a role model in the same way they share their story, so I know what to advocate for. This is very important, the connection.

Losing that connection, how can you advocate properly if you don't meet these people that you are representing? And me, as a role model to them so that they can get inspiration that there is possibilities that we can do more than what we are now. This is very important.

Peter: That's such a nice way of tying the conversation together, because we started on you not having role models. That's very beautiful and moving, thank you for sharing that.

Abner: Thank you, Peter.

Further reading

For more about Abner's work see his profile at the Center for Inclusive Policy and his youtube channel. He tweets from @amanlapaz. See also Life Haven Independent Living Center.

For more on the elections in the Philippines, this short Vice documentary was helpful to get a feel for the main campaigns and what was in play for some voters.

For more in-depth interviews see the last interview I did with Yazmine Laroche, a Deputy Minister changing the Canadian public service, and, for other people leading work in low- and middle-income countries:


Many thanks to Abner for such an enjoyable conversation and the years of fielding all sorts of questions from me. Thanks to Alex Cote who helped prepare for the conversation.

Thanks to support from readers that powers Disability Debrief. Many thanks to CBM Global's support to this edition. And to Tan Kuan Aw for the newsletter logo.