When Josephine de Vera, or Josie, was six months old, she got a high fever. Her parents took her to the hospital for medication, where the doctor told them she had polio. Josie and her family looked for better treatment, but due to financial difficulties and the distance to medical centers, they finally had to stop seeking new and better medication.
Josie went through therapy every day with the hope that she would recover. When she was 3 years old, she learned how to walk without using any assistive device. She also entered a private school.
She was enrolled by her parents in a private school. But since other children noticed that she got disability, she was labeled.
“Especially as a teenager I used to cry because I could not join some outdoor activities in the school like other students did,” she said. “I said to myself that it’s really hard and painful to live with disability, but I realized that no one can help me except myself if I used to hide my disability and feel self-pity.”
Josie finished her university studies, where she was actively involved in community organizations. Because of her involvement, she was elected as President of Kalipunan ng Liping Pilipina (KALIPI), the grassroots women organization (non-disabled women) in the Dagupan City, where the Federation of Women with Disabilities is affiliated.
She became more involved in disability rights issues. In her role as President, she assist in establishing Stimulation and Therapeutic Activity Center (STAC) which caters children with disabilities 0-14 years old in their city. She was asked to build a therapy center for children with disabilities: the Stimulation and Therapeutic Activity Center (STAC)). This project is one of the longest running projects, managed by the the Katipunan ng Maykapansanan sa Pilipinas Inc (KAMPI) a national federation of cross-disability organizations in the Philippines that removes barriers for persons with disabilities. She also assisted the Deaf organization to lobby with the Parish Priest of St. John’s Cathedral Church in the city to have mass with a sign language interpreter, which has taken an active approach in promoting the rights of persons with disabilities.
To complete this project, Josie thought about her experiences in discrimination. When she attended university, the building was not accessible for persons who have difficulties in walking. There was no elevator or escalator that she could have used to get to higher floors. Some of her classes were held on the second or third floor. She had to come much earlier than most to avoid being late to class because it was difficult for her to navigate the stairs.
The discrimination she has seen and experienced pushed her further into advocacy. Josie was lucky enough to grow up in a family that supported her progress, but she saw that persons with disabilities were largely neglected in the Philippines and other places in the world. She felt a calling to advocate for real changes for her community that is why she decided to become a disability rights activist.
Josie has observed that persons with disabilities are not visible due to many barriers. Persons with disabilities are not always afforded the opportunity to participate in governance and development. Difficulties in accessing public buildings, transportation, communication, politics and decision making have been real advocacy challenges.
But now, Josie’s childhood dream is gradually becoming a reality with the Philippines’ adoption of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2008.
According to Josie, major issues in the struggle for equality of persons with disabilities in the Philippines include a lack of data on disabilities nationwide, employment opportunities and full implementation of laws/policies related to disability issues. Advocates have lobbied government officials, performed awareness-raising activities, strengthened disabled persons organizations, conducted a series of forums/symposiums on the rights of persons with disabilities and performed capacity building activities for persons with disabilities.
Josie is currently the President of KAMPI. Through this organization, Josie continues to raise awareness of the government and public on the rights of persons with disabilities. She is also starting to promote the political participation of persons with disabilities by undertaking capacity building and organizational strengthening for women and children with disabilities.
“Afflictions come to us not to make us sad, not to make us sorry, but rather to make us wise and strong enough to help us survive in these challenging times,” she said. “Neither has it hindered us in fulfilling our dreams. You only need to possess patience, hard work, determination and faith in God in order to make these dreams a reality.”