Nov 22: Co-operatives are creating new employment opportunities for disabled Filipinos living in poverty.
'I am the best point guard in the Philippines," announces a beaming Roland Ordoña, running one hand along the arm of his wheelchair. The declaration lacks any hint of irony: a shelf in his office at the San Francisco Association of Differently Abled Persons (Safra-Adap) displays some of the trophies accumulated over his basketball career, which included an appearance at the 1997 Asean Games.
It is a testament to his victory over a disabling vitamin deficiency that robbed him of the use of his legs almost 20 years ago, particularly in a country where inclusion for people with disabilities remains elusive. Thirty-three per cent of the Philippines population – including many of the country's 4 million disabled people – live below the poverty line, which the World Bank estimates at roughly 55 pesos (80 pence) per day. In Manila, gleaming high-rises tower over warrens of slums blighted by open sewers and high gun crime, while in the provinces many families go hungry when there are no fish to be caught and eaten or bartered for rice.
The difficulties for disabled people are exacerbated by a lack of data and the fact that some definitions of "disabled" used by government agencies since 1990, when figures on disability were first recorded, have excluded women and children.
"Before, people like us faced a lot of discrimination," says Ordoña. "We were viewed as unproductive liabilities. But because of Safra-Adap, we have won the respect of our community and the government." Now in its 10th year, Safra-Adap operates a workshop producing school chairs for the Department of Education and is staffed entirely by disabled workers. Based in Agusan del Sur, Mindanao, on a hectare of land donated by the local government, it functions as both a training ground and a viable business concern, paying a higher than average income to its 45 members.
"For the first five years we were like a kindergarten," smiles Ordoña. "But since we didn't have any opportunities in the outside world, we knew that we had no choice but to join together to create opportunity for ourselves." Although the school chair contract accounts for 80% of its output, Ordoña says the workshop competes successfully with other local businesses, thanks largely to the quality of its products.
The co-operative is one of the flagship members of the National Federation of Co-operatives of Persons With Disability (NFCPWD), the only federation of co-operatives owned and managed by disabled people in the Philippines. Established in 1998, NFCPWD covers the start-up costs for 15 primary co-operatives, which employ almost 1,500 disabled persons. Some of the employees have disabilities caused by polio, congenital deformities or injury, while others may be blind or deaf. All members participate in decision-making, and many are able to purchase houses on site.
Islamist attacks - Geographical fragmentation, a hefty national debt, endemic corruption and insurgent attacks mean making such opportunities available to the most vulnerable remains no easy feat. The separatist Islamist group Abu Sayyaf continues to carry out bombings, kidnappings and assassinations in Mindanao as part of its campaign for an independent province. "There are many places we can't access, particularly in Mindanao," explains Yolanda Quijano, Undersecretary of Education.
Two days before we arrived at Safra-Adap, a bomb exploded in Cotabato, where NFCPWD has another member co-operative. The violence means shipments can be delayed for months at a time, and many development aid groups have found it difficult to support projects in the region as a result.
One exception is CBM, an international NGO specialising in the empowerment and inclusion of people with disabilities in the world's poorest countries. Thirty-nine of its projects are based in the Philippines, where it provides community-based rehabilitation as well as advocacy, education, and preventative and curative treatment. Since 1998, CBM has helped to cover the operational costs of NFCPWD. According to Mike Davies, head of programme development at CBM UK: "While other organisations tend to limit their support to three- to five-year commitments, CBM can stick around to see projects through to maturity. We expect to continue our support of the Federation until it can stand on its own."
But is the grassroots approach enough? "A lending programme is just the start – we need to create sustainable opportunities as well," says Peter Hammerle, CBM project adviser in the Philippines. Although the Department of Education has committed to buying 10% of school furniture from Federation co-operatives, it is possible future governments may renege on this agreement. "We're also lobbying for fuller implementation of the Magna Carta for Disabled Persons [a 1992 Act introduced by the Philippines government to encourage rehabilitation, self-reliance and integration of disabled persons], says Hammerle. "After it came into effect, some wheelchair ramps appeared around Manila – but they weren't standardised, and many were actually unsafe to use."
As in other developing nations, limited funds and political will mean the guarantees laid down in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities continue to be given short shrift.
The World Bank estimates disability is associated with 20% of global poverty. However, the UN Millennium Development Goals make no reference to disability, despite the fact that most of the targets – including poverty eradication, universal primary education, gender equality and reduced child mortality – depend heavily on addressing the particular needs of disabled persons.
In this light, the Safra-Adap co-operative may seem an atypical example of triumph against the odds. But when I ask Ordoña how he reconciles the aim of building an inclusive society with a co-operative staffed exclusively by disabled people, he is adamant that the workshop serves an important function.
"First we have to inject our members with a sense of the importance of life, the value of money and the need to invest in their futures," he says. Members have gone on to set up their own micro-enterprises and joined the boards of non-disabled organisations – proof, he says, that they have achieved integration. Some co-operatives are now so successful that members are being encouraged to pursue accountancy qualifications to manage their burgeoning finances. There are also plans for a plantation programme and collaborations with the tourist industry, including tours led by co-operative members to the floating communities of Agusan Marsh.
Paying it back - "Success depends on grabbing opportunities as they arise," says Hammerle. "We've proved that after only a few hours training, a person can be productive. After that, workers won't be supported by the co-operative unless they contribute." A strong sense of puhunan – responsibility to pay back favours done by others – underlies Safra-Adap's recent goodwill donation of furniture to schools and the municipal government.
"When schoolchildren see their chairs being delivered by people on crutches, in wheelchairs … they value the furniture that much more," one worker tells me. It is also clear that the satisfaction of the work is not lost on the members themselves. I ask Ordoña if he is ever tempted to retire from the co-operative to revive his basketball career. The suggestion is greeted with a smile, but it is clear that he has no such plans.
"It is my happiness to serve persons with disabilities," he says. "Now, it is my life."
'I checked in to hospital. Within 24 hours I couldn't move from the waist down'
In 1995, Roland Ordoña was a happily married father, teacher and coach of his provincial basketball team. "I loved being a 'sports guy' and everything that came with it," he says. "Friends, parties, prizes…" He trails off. "Then one day, I checked in to hospital thinking I had the flu. They sent me home with some medication, but the next day I was readmitted. Within 24 hours I couldn't move from the waist down."
His diagnosis was slow in coming – and when it finally did arrive, the news wasn't good. "My doctor told me there was a problem with the nerves in my spine, and that I'd have to undergo physical rehabilitation," Ordoña recalls. "But there was no money to pay for this, so I had no choice but to go home."
At first, he says, he blamed God for what happened to him. "But then I opened my eyes and saw I had to accept my new limitations." He found inspiration in the stories of Christopher Reeve and Governor Grace Padaca (who despite being partially paralysed as a result of childhood polio went on to highly successful careers in broadcasting and politics in the Philippines), and in 1999 co-founded Safra-Adap, which he continues to manage alongside running his own farm, pharmacy and grocery store. "I have learnt to be very good at time management," he says, with a smile.
A chance for a new life - At the age of three, a volcanic eruption forced Mayta Banday to flee her home province of Albay with her family. "We were sheltered in a public school, where we slept on a cement floor," she says. "I contracted polio there, and lost the use of my feet." She pauses. "But I consider myself lucky, because many other children died."
Because she couldn't walk until she was eight, Banday entered school late. With six siblings at home (her father was a farmer and her mother a vendor), she had to stop school after completing her elementary education. "I accepted that this was my life, but it was very hard," she says.
But one day she happened to meet a friend outside her school when the scholarship exams were being taken. By accident, she was ushered inside and left at a desk with a test paper. "I wrote the test, passed it and was able to go to the school," she says. "I had to work part-time to help my family, but I graduated in the top five of my class."
A college scholarship and an accountancy qualification followed, but still she struggled to find a job because of her disability. Finally, a position as a bookkeeper at the New Hope co‑operative paved the way for her to become business development officer at the National Federation of Co-operatives of Persons With Disability in 2007. There that she met the father of her daughter, who was born last year.