Lawyers remove handicaps for PWDs
Project aims to make courts more accessible to poor, disadvantagedBy Nathaniel R. Melican
Philippine Daily Inquirer
The blind, the deaf and other persons with disabilities (PWDs) will no longer have to worry about being marginalized under the justice system, thanks to “PWD-friendly public attorneys.”
The National Council on Disability Affairs (NCDA) last week introduced the first three lawyers officially tasked to help the handicapped in the legal arena.
The Quezon City-based council launched the initiative through its Sub-Committee on Access to Justice and Anti-Discrimination in line with its mission to make the courts more accessible to the poor and disadvantaged.
“This is the first time that the government, specifically the Department of Justice, has made this commitment to give justice to persons with disabilities and has openly supported this cause,” said Carmen Zubiaga, NCDA’s acting executive director.
The three lawyers—Florences de Belen of the DOJ Action Center in Padre Faura, Manila; and Demiteer Huerta and Maria Agatha Mijares of the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) headquarters in Quezon City—will be handling the complaints of PWDs who, according to Zubiaga, are often discouraged to report abuses because of their condition.
“They are the first public attorneys who were trained to take cases filed by persons with disabilities. They know what the disabilities are and how to communicate with PWDs,” Zubiaga said.
This special pool of lawyers is so far limited to the PAO main office and the DOJ Action Center but more are expected to join the team in the coming weeks, courtesy of the PAO regional offices.
“Right now, persons with disabilities find it hard even just to report to authorities the abuses they encounter because of the fear of not being understood,” Zubiaga said.
“For example, deaf people are discouraged by the lack of interpreters who can voice out their complaints,” she added.
Zubiaga also noted that blind people tend to be considered unreliable witnesses in court.
Add to these the cases of PWDs who were accused and convicted of crimes under questionable circumstances.
“We had a case where a man, who was paralyzed from the neck down, spent nine years in jail after he was found guilty of rape. But how could he have committed it when he can’t even lift a finger, more so have an erection? He became a victim of the prosecutor’s ignorance of the man’s disability,” Zubiaga said.
“In the long run, the Sub-Committee on Access to Justice and Anti-Discrimination aims to realize the support services needed by persons with disabilities and other minority groups so we can have equality in the justice system which can be accessed truly by all,” she added.
The subcommittee is composed of representatives from the DOJ, Commission on Human Rights, Philippine National Police, Integrated Bar of the Philippines and various PWD organizations.
Initially, it is conducting a review of the personnel and infrastructure used by the justice system to check if these are PWD-friendly.
“We will be looking for things such as interpreters for the deaf and ramps and elevators for the paralyzed, among others. We will then bring to the DOJ’s attention any facility which has insufficient accessibility so that the situation could be improved,” Zubiaga said.
“We will also be training policemen and other frontline officers such as barangay officials in dealing with persons with disabilities. The committee will also track the progress of cases filed by PWDs and give funding so they can continue pursuing their cases,” she added.
Zubiaga admitted that the NCDA’s desired transformation could take some time although they expect changes to be visible in two to three years.
The council will soon form another subcommittee that will review laws to see if these conform with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
“We hope this review will lead to changes which can empower PWDs and further make their voices heard,” Zubiaga said.