Tag Archives: Philippines

The Fallen Brave

30 Jan

Today, I dedicate this space to honor the 44 Special Action Force policemen who died in the line of duty in Maguindanao.

While we have yet to piece together the details of this botched operation, while we ask the hard questions and demand for accountability, while we press for justice for the dead and punishment for the guilty and the responsible, today, we take the time to thank our fallen brothers for their service to the country.

Many of them were young men in the cusp of their lives. They never complained the hard lot of a policeman’s life. They left behind their families and the comforts of homes, ready to be thrown at a moment’s notice in hostile territory to fight for the one thing they will never know in their lifetime – peace. And they never begrudged the Filipino this thankless, often lonely, duty.

My grandfather was a policeman. When I was growing up, he used to tell us stories culled from his years of service as one of Manila’s Finest. We used to think of them as “adventures of daring and exploit.” We clapped our hands in glee whenever he reached the parts where bullets whizzed over their heads and small children that we were, we always asked for more. We never gave a second thought to the danger and risks he and his comrades took. It didn’t occur to us that all his stories could have gone the other way, that he could have been injured, or worse. They were all just stories to us.

When I was older, I asked him why he chose to go into the service. By then, I knew about the reality of being a policeman. The low pay. The long hours. The inadequate material support in equipment, ammunition, even uniforms.

He thought about this for a while. The only answer he gave me was “somebody had to do it.”

Our men in uniform serve as the wall that protects us from the horrors of hate, evil, and war. Today, we grieve the loss of these 44 young men who gave up their lives so that all of us may be a little safer in our homes, in our communities, and in our country. They never sought merit or glory. They never dreamt of money or fame. I bet if we could ask them why they bravely laid their lives on the line, they’d tell you the same thing.

Somebody had to do it.

And that somebody was them, the 44 fallen braves of the Special Action Force and their brothers in service who risk their lives daily for us. I wish they knew how much we appreciate their bravery and service.

Thank you for your sacrifice.

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Undone by an Untyphoon

8 Aug

Anyone who has ever lived through these last few days is not likely to forget. Much like Typhoon Ondoy in 2009, the devastation these days of unrelenting, unremitting rain have caused is of a magnitude no one ever imagined was possible. Typhoon Ondoy was not a fluke weather disturbance, as we were all led to believe. It was a portent of things to come, a preview of how a whole city can be transformed into a Waterworld.

There is no typhoon over Metro Manila. And yet we are deep in floods, many as high as two-storey buildings, as we are slowly and willfully undone by what others call an Untyphoon. We are experiencing monsoon rains of unbelievable intensity and duration such that close to 90% of the whole metro have been crippled by massive flooding (with half still flooded). It is heartbreaking to see, the sight of once bustling cities turned into murky pools of deathly water.

I live in high ground so I am removed from the greatest threat of flooding. But the rains have not spared us either. There is water damage everywhere, as water seeps through our walls and ceilings, soaking and ruining everything in its path. I can’t sleep well as I worry about the extent of damage to my home, even to Alphonse’s schoolhouse. And yet I can’t help but feel immensely lucky. We are here, complete. Our home is still standing, and despite leaks and weeping walls, we are generally dry. We have enough food and drinking water for a few days. I can’t worry beyond the here and now so I focus on the good things that keep us going. We are alive. And we will survive.

The State of Autism in the Philippines

6 Nov

Originally published in Herword.com on November 2, 2010

I write this in honor of a person with autism, Alphonse Cuaycong, who is  sixteen this November.

Every year, on the third week of January, autism awareness comes to forefront in the nation’s priorities as we celebrate Autism Consciousness Week. World Autism Awareness Day, celebrated on April 2 of each year in perpetuity, furthers this cause by linking nations in efforts to bring awareness to a condition that breaches global barriers, race, gender, religion, and social status.

Autism awareness in the country has grown by leaps and bounds, thanks largely to the untiring and continuing hard work of Autism Society Philippines. They knock on doors previously closed to all our children. They create buzz for activities meant to highlight our children’s contributions to society. They work on information and education and early diagnosis. They do all that and more, motivated solely by altruistic concerns and a genuine love for our children.

And yet, despite their unending efforts to get heard, be seen, be known, be taken seriously, there remains a real disparity between awareness and action, between theoretical ideas and words and what exists out there in the real world. Let me state for the record that I hold the society in highest esteem and I do not mean to belittle their successes. The truth is, without Autism Society Philippines, the agenda of autism in the country would have remained in the back burners forever. Autism would just be another dirty little secret, hidden behind closed doors, locked away in dark attics, whispered but never seriously discussed. It is to their credit that autism has broken down some walls in our society — some, but not all. And this is where the gap begins.

With the uncertain prospects of the economic downturn, many countries with state- or nationally-funded programs for autism and other disabilities have been drastically cutting back on costs, shortening the lives of essential programs, or discontinuing them altogether. I have seen and heard how parents continue to fight for their children’s rights and while I am deeply sympathetic to their plight, I do not fully comprehend the depth of their loss or their anguish. In my country, we all live with the certainty that integral programs for the education of children with disabilities will long remain a pipe dream

We do not lack laws that protect and promote the rights of our children; on the contrary, we have some of the best ones. There’s RA 232, called the Education Act of 1982 which was enacted on September 11, 1982. The law mandates that “the State shall promote the right of every individual to relevant quality education, regardless of sex, age, creed, socio-economic status, physical and mental conditions, racial or ethnic origin, political or other affiliation. The State shall therefore promote and maintain equality of access to education as well as the enjoyment of the benefits of education by all its citizens.”

Even without it, however, our Constitution and Bill of Rights guarantee this very same right, that “the State shall protect and promote the rights of all citizens to quality education at all levels and shall take appropriate steps to make such education accessible to all” and that “the State shall provide adult citizens, the disabled, the out-of-school-youth with training in civics, vocational efficiency and other skills.” Furthermore, the Constitution states that “the State shall adopt an integrated and comprehensive approach to health development which shall endeavor to make essential goods, health and other social services available to all people at affordable costs. There shall be priority for the needs of the underprivileged sick, elderly, disabled, women and children.”

We also have the Magna Carta for Disabled Persons or RA 7277, signed into law on March 24, 1992 by then President Corazon Aquino. In itself, it is a beautiful law, one that sought to provide persons with disabilities the same rights enjoyed by their able counterparts — education, employment, health and social services. Making it even more significant, this was later amended by RA 9442 in April of 2007, and by virtue of this amendment, provisions of the original law were expanded to include fully realizable economic privileges such as discount for food and medicines, health care, transportation and education. These are meant to provide economic respite to many parents who support their children with disabilities without any state or local government funding.

But the reality is this: public education in the Philippines, while well-meaning and well-intentioned, is a mendicant policy, a victim of poor prioritization in a budget inflated with pork barrel and ridden with corruption. There are not enough classrooms for all the children. There are not enough books, and if there were, their quality is poor. There are not enough good teachers and certainly not enough teacher training to ensure that someone like comedian Melissa Cantiveros of PBB fame, a teacher in her home town, is proficient in the subject she has been chosen to teach (in her case, English).

If public education as a governmental policy is already ranked low in the state’s priorities, then consider how low special education is regarded in the very same totem pole. Most local governments have little or no funding for special programs. The laws are there, alright, but the money isn’t. There are no early intervention classrooms for children diagnosed early, except a few in private schools or institutions. Public special education teachers in the country work against lack of money for materials, lack of a good classrooms to integrate smooth working spaces for the children, and lack of manpower and help. If these classes survive at all, it is because of the guts and determination of these individuals — these heroes — who have put a stake in our children’s education and wellbeing.

Private special education, on the other hand, costs an arm and a leg and is usually out of the reach of the common people. The quality of education and programs offered also vastly differ from one school to another, from one program to another. Some are good, some are bad; all need lots of money. Moreover, private special schools, as our own experience has taught us, may turn your child away, something that we once thought was impossible in the setting of special education. Low-functioning kids are also at a disadvantage as private programs for adolescents favor those with higher-functioning skills.

Money, or the lack of it, remains only part of the problem. Political will is another. The Magna Carta for Disabled Persons provides this sector with financial help in the form of discounts, and even with the law, sometimes, these discounts are difficult to obtain (especially when it comes to medicines). The Implementing Rules and Regulations took their sweet time in coming, and even with the touted reforms in the way disability is viewed and treated in the country, this has yet to be fully translated into real life. The good news is that spurred by the National Council on Disability Affairs, many local governments have taken their own initiatives in making this law bear fruit. In our city, Alphonse has received his purchase booklet for basic goods and services, along with his National Council on Disability Affairs identification card.

And there are still dreams that will need more time to come to complete fruition: a year after the first sensory-friendly movie in September, what we have still are token showings on special occasions, and not the kind of inclusive, sensory-friendly and regular screenings we always dreamt of.

Still, I remain positive and hopeful that one day soon, children like Alphonse will finally get a fair shake in this society. Fourteen and a half years after diagnosis, my son has yet to fully experience the benefits of the laws set to safeguard his rights. Then again, perhaps the change may not even come within his time. Yet as long as we start to take the little steps to correcting these, as long as we remain vigilant and persistent, as long as we continue to fight for the rights of the more than half a million Filipinos with autism, hand in hand with Autism Society Philippines, perhaps that day may not be too long in coming.

I have great hope.

Reflections

28 Aug

Originally posted in HerWord.com on August 27, 2010

A few nights ago, I slept with a heavy heart, my eyes sore from weeping. Monday, while the whole world watched live on television, fifteen men and women were held at gunpoint for over eleven hours, trapped in a tourist bus in the middle of Manila’s Quirino Grandstand. 

It’s hard to believe that just more than a hundred days ago, the Quirino Grandstand was a sea of joyful yellow, the venue of a country’s pride. The inauguration of the newly elected President was a cause of national celebration. After years of unwanted rule, we finally had a chance at a government we wanted. Sadly, all that goodwill seems to have been wiped out by an indelible act of violence. By night’s end, what was once a venue for celebration had become that of despair, notoriety, and murder. Eight hostages were dead from the hostage taker’s hand. The gunman, once a decorated police officer, lay sprawled across the broken bus door, dead from a bullet to his head.

In the aftermath of these long hours of madness, Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks were rife with complaints, insults, and harsh words on the conduct of our police.  Many of them, while hurtful, are undeniably true.  Monday’s hostage crisis showed the police force’s glaring lack of training and preparation. It exposed, much to our shame and dishonor, the conspicuous holes that riddle this once honorable institution.

And yet, it is only too easy to pass judgment and rail at police incompetence from the safety of our own homes. Without knowing how it is to lay your life on the line, it is easy to crucify them for their lack of discipline and training, their slow response time, their seeming indecision, their deficiency in strategy, their shortage of knowledge on onsite crisis management, and even their apparent ignorance of crowd control. However much we detest their action- or inaction- that night, we all saw, too, that these same men stood in the pouring rain with hardly anything to protect them from the elements, much less the bullets of high-powered assault firearms. They had no Kevlar vests and helmets. Many had no shields.  They had no gas masks to face the biting sting of the tear gas on their face, or night vision goggles and scopes to handle the dark interior of the bus, or even surveillance equipment. As the television showed us all too clearly that night, even their tear gas canisters were sometimes duds.   

Yesterday morning, I opened the television to tune in to the Teleradyo station on cable, with broadcaster Noli de Castro on the line. He criticized the conduct of the police, claiming that the new president will have much work to do to fix the police force. As an afterthought, he added, “Akala ko kasi okay na nung kay GMA.” (“I thought it was already okay under GMA (Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo).”)  But wait, wasn’t he vice-president then?  He was the second highest public official of the land, and he did not know the state of police readiness in the country? Was he kidding me?

The appalling shortcomings the police showed that night are the result of years of mismanagement and corruption not only in the force, but in government. For far too long, a culture of blind loyalty and patronage politics existed as the only means to get ahead in the promotions game. And far too often, the abuses of high-ranking government officials have gone unpunished while those below are left to wallow in meager salaries and substandard equipment, if any. 

Yes, mistakes were made right and left, and these cost many lives. I grieve with the families of those who died in that bus and I reach out to them, through the void of the Internet, with the spirit of humble apology and atonement.  I pray for their heartache and their loss. And I join the voices of  the people who demand that action be taken to make people accountable for their mistakes. It is time to make the police honorable again, and this time, there can be no excuses.

Still, I do not wish to join the wholesale condemnation of the entire Philippine National Police. Many of them, I believe, are still men of valor and honor, willing to lay their lives in the defense of the common man. As a granddaughter of a deceased policeman, once one of Manila’s Finest (his life was remade into a little-known Sonny Parsons movie called “The Fastest Gun Alive”), I know only too well the hardships and sacrifice these men live with in the performance of their duties. My grandfather, at the end of his life, died a poor man, but he died with pride at his own legacy as a policeman and an officer. 

Let this taint on our nation’s soul be a constant reminder to all those who might forget that the price of negligence and arrogance is life.

H2O

22 Jul

Forgive me if I keep writing about water; it’s the only thing that consumes my mind these days. I am appalled that people in goverment continue to insist that there is NO water crisis. What does it take to make this a real crisis? Listen up, Mr. Lacierda! For goodness’ sakes, it’s all over the news! We’re talking about more than two million people affected. It makes me angry that Mr. Lacierda, the President’s spokesman, insists that  “It only affects areas serviced by Maynilad.” Dry taps, dead toilets, even rationed drinking water- and there is no crisis?  Already, there are fighting and jostling in long, unruly lines. People wait for hours to get relief that comes without schedule or organization. And when it comes to situations like these, without leaders to guide the way, it becomes every man for himself.   

I just noticed that the tanker is from Manila Water. 🙂

I am disappointed that the government is taking its own sweet time in responding to this crisis. They say that the solutions are in place but where are they? What are they? From barangay to city to national level, there seems to be no immediate response to this crisis other than to point fingers, blame the weather, and enjoin the people to prayer. I am parched and tired and mad as hell.  

Yesterday, however, a water tanker finally made it to our street. After I called Maynilad last week, and called them twice more to confirm action on my request for water, we finally caught sight of the delivery men. We ran as fast as we could, bringing pails and buckets and five-gallon containers and just about any kind of receptacle we could grab. One of our neighbors didn’t want to share at first, claiming that they were the  priority case, but when confronted by loud  and indignant neighbors, they backed down. I was lucky, I didn’t have to fall in line too far behind the first bucket. Still,with people trying to sneak in through the lines and many more with humongous pails that dwarfed mine, it took me close to three hours before I filled all of my containers. At first, it was all bedlam and confusion as people jockeyed for positions closest to the hoses. Amid the din of voices, however, my protests for calm were heard and my neighbors, mostly strapping young men, finally started working together instead of against each other. I even got them to help me bring pails of water to an elderly neighbor down the street. A young female neighbor helped me and the nannies carry the bottles of water back to our place. Then too, my four-wheeled pallet came in handy, helping an older neighbor carry a large covered pail to her home without much effort. By the time the tanker was drained dry, we had all helped each other. It was classic bayanihan* in action and for once, I felt proud to be part of this little community.

So last night, for the first time in almost two weeks, I slept soundly, confident that we have enough water for a few days, at least. I doubt if the worry and anxiety will cease; after all, the problems- unusually prolonged hot weather and low water levels, worsened by inefficient water utility service (talk about a 53% nonrevenue water level or lost water for Maynilad – this means more than half of water they get from the dam is lost or spilled- sheesh!) and dam problems (leaks, maintenance problems)- are still here, unsolved as the day the  water disappeared from our taps. But for now, I will give thanks for the little graces and the little miracles that God sends to remind us that despite fear and worry, He is very much around.

~0~ 

 

*Bayanihan (pronounced [bajɐˈnɪhan]) is a Filipino term taken from the word bayan, referring to a nation, town or community. The whole term bayanihan refers to a spirit of communal unity or effort to achieve a particular objective. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayanihan)

To Senator Noynoy

16 Nov

better autistic copyAn Open Letter to Senator Noynoy Aquino from a Mother of an Autistic Child

(Originally published in Herword.com on November 16, 2009)

Dear Senator Noynoy,

Up until you announced your candidacy, I had given up hope in the election process of 2010. While I have exercised my voting rights judiciously in every election since I turned eighteen, years of ineffective, dishonest governing have made me jaded and worn me out of any shred of hope.

And then you came along, and for the first time in many, many years, I felt I had something to look forward to. This child of the Marcos era, who slept through much of her adolescence in an apolitical and apathetic slumber, who resisted the call for the revolution in 1986 because she was too busy studying, is putting her hopes for honest change squarely on your shoulders. I pray for a change that will come in my lifetime and continue in my children’s and their children’s lifetimes.

Your popularity does not surprise me. I share the sentiments of many people who have felt indignant yet helpless at the shameless and callous displays of behavior of our present government. But while your popularity may help you in the course of the campaign, it has also opened you to vicious attacks from your opponents.

Your critics claim that you are autistic, and as any neurotypical person is wont to react, you have vehemently denied it, calling it “malicious and baseless.”

Allow me to say outright that I do not believe you have autism. I may not be a diagnostician, but having lived with autism every single day for the last fifteen years of my life, I  know what autism is firsthand. I have witnessed it up close, lived with all its blessings, and survived almost all its challenges. What I know of it, I know not only from books, from the Net, or from research and published papers. What I know of it comes from real life. As an advocate for autism, I am proud to be part of the large community of families of Filipinos with autism, which at last count, numbers close to half a million affected individuals. That being said, let me posit a question: If you were one, what is absolutely wrong with it?

Autism is a spectrum of conditions ranging from the mildly affected to the most severely impaired. Common to this spectrum, however, are varying degrees of deficits in social relatedness, behavior, and communication. My son Alphonse, at 15, remains on the far end of the bell curve of “normal.” He is nonverbal, continues to require assistance for many of the activities of daily living, and has the cognitive understanding of a five-year-old child. You, on the other hand, are well-educated, highly conversant and intelligent; your cognitive abilities are certainly not in question. While these two pictures comprise the polar ends of the extent and breadth of a highly complicated spectrum (again, I reiterate, we are simply assuming for the sake of argument that you belong to this spectrum), they are not totally incompatible. (To wit, there are individuals with different degrees of autism already enrolled in some of our country’s best universities.)

Autism is difficult and challenging, and to those of us who love persons with autism, it is a rollercoaster ride every single day. Is it a disability? It is, but it also is not; it depends on how you look at it. And yet, when you really think about it, ravenous greed is a much harder disorder to treat, as are immorality, shamelessness, corruption, and vice. I have heard of recovery in autism, but diseases of the soul are almost always incurable.

If being autistic means not being able to lie, then by all means, I should be proud to say I am autistic.

If being autistic means not being able to cheat and rig elections, then call me autistic.

It being autistic means not being able to steal, to use public funds for personal gain while the country wallows in poverty, then I am staunchly autistic.

If being autistic means satisfaction with what one has, if it means a characteristic lack of greed and materialism, then I count myself autistic.

If it means not being envious and not judging people based on looks, money, connections, or pogi points, then, yes, I am autistic.

So the next time someone calls you autistic and you feel slighted, perhaps you may wish to reply to them this way instead: “Thank you for calling me autistic. To me, autism does not make one more or less of a person. It does not make one more or less of a man. It just makes one autistic. I am sorry to disappoint you that I am not, but I hope to be able to live up to the honesty people with autism expect every day. I would much rather be autistic than be corrupt. Better autistic than be unable to understand what it means to be a public servant. Thank you very much.”

The day you do, you have championed the cause of the least able of our people. And for what it’s worth, you still have my vote.

Sincerely yours,
Pinky Ong-Cuaycong

Countdown to Conference Time!

24 Aug

autism-beyond-bordersI woke up this morning, certain that something good is soon coming. I ran to the calendar on the wall, and started counting the days. “Sixty-one days before the conference,” I whispered breathlessly. I can hardly wait!

It’s been like this some years now. When conference time comes, and it comes only once every two years (from 1995 to 2001, it was actually an annual conference, thereafter, a biennial event), it seems as if the whole autism community in the country is abuzz with excitement. One gets caught up in the frenzy of reconnecting with old friends, who, by virtue of geographical distance, you get to see only during conferences. More importantly, one gets seized with the fever of autism issues, both old and new, at hand. Suddenly, we’re not just living with autism, we’re all talking about it, too. How often do we really get to do that, really?

When my son was diagnosed with autism thirteen and a half years ago, one of the most important decisions my husband and I ever made was to attend the 1996 National Conference on Autism. With the theme “Parents and Professionals Working Two-gether,” newbies in the autism world that we were then, we felt an almost imperative need to search for answers to questions that we had. Of course, it helped that the Internet was starting to take off in the country and we could get information not just from books, of which we had precious few, but also from various sources. Yet, information and knowledge, while crucial to our journey as a family living with this condition, palled in light of our isolation. Finding others who shared a similar plight — parents and professionals who understood our struggles and achievements, our trials and successes — helped us in our road to healing. That conference marked the year we learned to embrace our differences from other families, believing with deep faith in a human journey of God’s design.

And so we ask the question: what do we look forward to this year? Well, click on Autism Beyond Borders to find out everything you need to know about the conference. Allow me, however, to whet your appetite. We’ve got a great line-up this year, with four foreign speakers flying from different parts of the globe to lead our learning experiences. There’s Dr. Valerie Paradiz (herself a diagnosed case of Asperger’s and mom to a son with the same condition), who will speak on learning strategies to help our children; Mr. Toshihiro Ogimura, who will talk on Daily Life Therapy, a Japanese method of intervention in use in the famous Higashi schools, including the residential program; Dr. Knut Erik Baalerud, specialist in psychiatry, who will discuss seizures and other neurologic issues common to our children; and Mr. Hiroshi Kawamura, who will help us in the blossoming of DAISY as an assistive technology for  persons with autism. Of course, we have our local experts to round up the panel, with Teacher Archie David, ASP Laguna’s Riza Cansanay, OT Lyle Duque, Speech Path Jeri Casas, Teacher Hope Leyson, and Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights Atty. Leila de Lima to speak on their individual areas of autism expertise. It isn’t often that great minds (and hearts) come together in one place at the same time, and I am definitely not passing this opportunity to drink in their knowledge.

It can’t be denied that the conference gets better each time, and on the 11th National Conference, the winds of change augur auspiciously. (Did I tell you my favorite number is 11?) I invite you to be part of this historic, groundbreaking work to make a difference in the lives of each and every person with autism in our country. Come and join us on October 24 and 25 at the SMX Convention Center. Register now to avail of the early bird rates! Help us change lives. It could also change yours.