Disabled Workers Struggle for Options in an Economy that Shuns Them

Manila | 06/05/2013 9:00am
Purple Romero | Informal City Dialogues

If I were to describe Juan Tubbali’s workplace to him, this is what I would tell the 24-year-old masseuse who works in Pasay City, one of the busiest parts of Manila.

I’d tell him he works in a room not larger than 40 square meters, with plastic chairs placed at the front for people waiting to have the tensions from their stressful day kneaded away. At the back are four smaller rooms divided by thin sheets of plywood. And inside these rooms are the beds where clients recline for a full-body massage by a person who cannot see them.

Though he’s certainly felt his way through this workspace many times, the visual description might help, for Juan is one of about 1,500 blind masseuses working in Metro Manila.

The mall where Juan works is modest, but strategically connected to a busy train station. Hundreds of commuters walk through here, some in office attire, others in neatly pressed school uniforms. A native of the northern province of Tuguegarao, Juan’s hands end up on many of these strangers. He’s only been in Manila since 2012, and is still struggling to adjust to its fast-paced urban culture.

In Tuguegarao, he tells me, “It’s easy to get along with everyone.” The people there are warm and friendly. But Juan — lanky, serious and proficient in English — had no choice but to head to the city. For someone like him, employment opportunities are extremely limited. According to a 2005 study by the Asian Development Bank and data from the Philippine National Statistics Office, only 10 to 30 percent of people with disabilities (PWDs) have regular formal work, while 50 percent work in the informal sector. The remaining 20 percent depend on family members for subsistence.

Juan used to work as a masseuse in Baguio City, a nearby area known for its lush climate and scenery. It’s one of the top tourist destinations in the country, but even the steady stream of customers he found there didn’t earn him more than $5 USD per week. He decided to come to Manila, where he now earns that much in one day (though he has no social security, health or housing benefits). But if you ask Juan what he really wants to do with his life, he’ll tell you that he wants to read.

His dream was to pursue a degree in English. He’s absolutely mad about books, which he reads through the Braille system. His favorite piece of writing is “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. But Juan, who excelled in elementary school, didn’t continue his education past high school. He said that he studied in a special education center for the disabled in elementary school, then entered a co-ed school where he learned the same lessons and took the same classes as his classmates who could see.

College, however, was never in the cards. “It’s not about the difficulty of being blind,” he says. (He lost his sight to the measles at the age of three). Instead, two things kept him out of higher education: He didn’t have the money for tuition, and he didn’t see the point of pursuing a college degree when there are such limited formal employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

“Even if I go to college, I know I would still end up as a masseur anyway,” he says. He has friends who are blind who took computer courses — IT is an in-demand skill in the Philippines — but ended up massage therapists just like him. “They wouldn’t get hired because of their disability,” he says. Ever the realist, Juan went straight into training for massage therapy through a non-profit organization that works in partnership with the government.

A study conducted in 2011 by Edralyn Cortes, a professor at St. Louis University, showed that employers’ assumptions about how hiring PWDs would affect their businesses “greatly determines hiring perceptions.” These perceptions ranged from “Negative Stereotype” (low productivity, frequent absenteeism and turnover) to “Added Business Value” (fostering an image of positive ethics, morale and company prestige) to “Added Cost and Efforts at Management” (the need for additional safety measures and closer training and supervision) to “Social Cost” (negative reactions from customers and co-workers).

The study found that service industries like hotels and small-scale enterprises were more likely to hire PWDs, while sectors like education were apprehensive. And just as Juan’s experience suggests, the study also found that having a college degree would not necessarily get a PWD a job related to their field. “Businesses in the Philippines also favor PWDs applying for nonprofessional jobs which may explain why employers choose non-college degree holders over those who have finished higher studies,” Cortes wrote.

Manuel Agcaoili, a businessman who has not been able to walk since he was struck by polio as a child, is active within the political partylist group Filipinos with Disability. (The party vied for a congressional seat in the 2013 elections, but lost). He says formal employment eludes PWDs not only because of discrimination, but an array of factors such as the lack of accessibility to transportation and the costs of additional equipment for disabled employees.

He says that according to data from Commission on Elections, there are 362,000 registered voters who are disabled. But his party failed to get even half of their votes. Juan himself is not aware that the PWD partylist group exists. “I’ll vote for them though if they help us get jobs and scholarships,” he says.

Agcaoili said the lack of funds — $75,000 for the whole campaign — has limited their capacity to raise the profile of the PWD partylist group. And though this year’s elections featured a campaign to help PWDs cast their votes by making polling stations more accessible, the Legal Network for Truthful Elections found that ramps were not in place at all polling places and not all PWDs were allowed to cast their votes on the ground floor.

But Agcaoili is already looking toward 2016. He says that in three years time, PWDs will have a representative in Congress who can address the unique challenges faced by people like him and Juan. “We would not give up,” he says.

All photos by Purple Romero