The Accessibility Law: 40 years of disappointment
I would like to start by commending the Department of Transportation (DoTr) and the National Council on Disability Affairs (NCDA) for launching a public consultation process to review and amend the implementing rules and regulations of Batas Pambansa Bilang 344 (BP 344, commonly known as the "Accessibility Law"). Soliciting feedback from stakeholders is the first step toward achieving the law's purpose and intent, which unfortunately remains unfulfilled.
The law, enacted in 1982, has a very clear and noble objective: "To promote the realization of the rights of disabled persons to participate fully in the social life and the development of the societies in which they live and the enjoyment of the opportunities available to other citizens."
It requires that buildings, facilities and public transport services, whether public or private, "install and incorporate in such building, establishment, institution or public utility, such architectural facilities or structural features as shall reasonably enhance the mobility of disabled persons such as sidewalks, ramps, railings and the like."
The stakeholder consultation is being conducted because the two agencies recognize that compliance has been poor and much still needs to be done to bring the law in line with international standards and practices.
When roads are built, sidewalks are considered "optional" — available road space is prioritized for motor vehicles even though all of us are pedestrians and only 6 percent of Filipino households own cars. Where sidewalks exist, they are generally deficient and unsafe: too narrow, uneven, and riddled with hazards and obstructions. It is rare to find wheelchair ramps on sidewalks that conform to design standards. Many elevated walkways, underpasses and footbridges require people to climb stairs, effectively excluding many in the population, including the elderly, pregnant women and small children.
Most buildings, including schools and government offices, likewise lack suitable ramps or even proper toilets for persons with disability. There are very few services or buildings that are designed to address the needs of people with eyesight or hearing impairments. Public transport vehicles, including most jeepneys and buses, are unable to accommodate persons with disability.
Because the law has remained ineffective, persons with disability are denied their right to mobility. They are also denied rights to health, education and work because they are prevented from accessing basic services and income opportunities.
The enforcement of the Accessibility Law is the responsibility of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), the DoTr and their respective attached agencies. The issuance of building permits, and the review and approval of building plans is the responsibility of city/municipal engineers acting on behalf of the DPWH.
The law includes penalties (increased under Republic Act 7277, or the "Magna Carta of Disabled Persons"): First offenses are meted a fine of P50,000 to P100,000 or imprisonment of six months to two years, at the discretion of the court. (Over time, these fines have become too small; they need to be significantly increased to serve as a deterrent.) It appears that no person or organization has been penalized for any violation of this law. This record of negligence over 40 years has taught Filipinos that the Accessibility Law can be ignored and that anyone violating the law can get away with it. Officials tasked to enforce and implement the law failed in their duty or were violators of the law themselves.
Apart from updating the fines, two things are needed or the law to be effective: a user-friendly channel for any person to report noncompliance and for such submissions to be processed in a systematic way; and, in case of any wrong-doing, a high probability of responsible parties being penalized so that public officials and private entities are motivated to comply with the law. Below are recommendations that can make a difference.
First, the NCDA should create a special unit with the responsibility to invite, receive and process complaints from the public regarding violations of BP 344 and to refer such to relevant government institutions. It should be possible to create a mobile phone app whereby violations of the law can easily be reported, with pictures and location information attached. The NCDA would be expected to prepare an annual report on the number and type of complaints received, and processed and the outcome of such complaints.
Second, both the DPWH and DoTr, with the assistance of the Department of Justice, should create special units for receiving and investigating complaints regarding violations of BP 344. Third, the Commission on Audit should prepare an annual report on the compliance of the DoTr and DPWH with BP 344. Fourth, within the Office of the Ombudsman, there should be an "Accessibility" Ombudsman with specific responsibility for investigating any allegations of wrongdoing by public officials with respect to implementation of BP 344. It is not possible to erase our collective shame and accountability for the 40 years of failure to implement BP 344. But we can commit today to do all that is necessary to achieve the full intent of the law. We owe it to our brother and sister Filipinos with disabilities, and we owe it to ourselves and future generations.
By Robert Y. Siy
Source: Manila Times