When Alphonse got his passport years ago, the application and renewal processes for minors and persons with disabilities were as limited as just showing up at the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) for a personal appearance. We filled out the forms by hand and submitted photographs and documentation. I don’t remember if they required proof of his disability then, but I remember bringing a letter from his developmental pediatrician, just in case. Sadly, Alphonse never got a chance to use his passport; aside from a planned long haul trip that went kaput, Alphonse’s resistance to change made it almost impossible to even try. His passport lapsed afterwards and, almost giving up on the dream of Disneyland for him, we let it stay expired.
A couple of months ago, buoyed by his unusual stretch of good behavior, we decided to have his passport renewed. To facilitate the process, we decided to schedule both his and his brother’s applications at the same time. I got appointments for both of them and prepared all the necessary documents.
In the midst of the preparations, however, Alphonse got sick. In our experience, any change always upsets his equilibrium; thus, I was tempted to forgo the appointment. But, having waited for it for close to two months, we did not relish the thought of postponing it for another 30 days. Fortunately, Alphonse was calm on the days leading to the date and given that he was on the road to recovery, we green-lighted the trip.
On the day of their appointments, we were at the DFA satellite branch in Megamall a full hour before opening. This guaranteed that we would be on time, with enough leeway to allow for eating or toilet accidents. It also allowed Alphonse to settle in and become more familiar with the area before the early morning crowd came in.
We were first in line when the doors opened at 10 in the morning. Because Alphonse required two persons to keep him company, the officers manning the appointments desk allowed me and my husband to accompany him. We got our numbers (first and second for the day for the boys) after our appointment papers were verified. I explained each step to Alphonse, carefully assessing if he was anxious, afraid, or angry. There were quite a few people behind us already and we wanted to avoid a meltdown in public. Step One, done.
While waiting for the documents to be received, the four of us sat in the front row on seats reserved for PWDs and senior citizens. When our number flashed on the screen, we went to the designated window to hand in the papers. The DFA personnel were understanding of Alphonse’s inclination to run away when he feels threatened and did their best to talk to him in a low, friendly tone. My husband and I held Alphonse’s hands throughout the process and reminded him continuously that we were beside him all the way. Step Two went without a hitch; except for a swift tussle with the fingerprinting (in lieu of his signature), we managed to move to Step Three right away.
Step Three was a brief stop at the cashier for payment. Alphonse sat down quietly while we waited for his dad to finish paying for their passports. As soon as he was done, my husband joined us in the seating area by the Encoding section.
Step Four, Biometrics Encoding, took the longest. Were Alphonse more cooperative, we would have been in and out in half an hour flat. As it was, it took around 35 takes with the digital camera before the officer could get an acceptable shot, and even then, it looked like a mugshot. Alphonse was obviously anxious and scared by that time. His heart was beating very fast and he had a wild eyed look on him, like a deer in headlights. Moreover, taking his fingerprints via the electronic reader turned out to be a battle of wills. He was stronger than all three of us combined and no amount of hand holding, finger twisting, forcing, and cajoling could set those fingers on the scanner. In the end, we had to let him shake off his fear himself. I had him do a series of touching exercises with his fingers, showing him each time that nothing would cause an “ouchie.” I got him to touch the scanner successfully a few times before we did the actual biometric reading. By the time he was done, he and I were both drenched in sweat.
A♥ stayed behind to pay for courier delivery of the passports while Alex and I led Alphonse out of the offices. Alphonse rushed down the flight of stairs and suddenly threw up, spewing the contents of his breakfast on the floor. We wiped him down, but he kept trying to grab a wet tissue off of us. When I asked him why he needed a wet wipe, he lifted his right foot, grunted “Uh,” and showed us the vomit still sticking to his shoes. We laughed like crazy then, and he laughed along, the relief visible in his face.
A couple of weeks later, when his passport was delivered, I showed it to Alphonse. He giggled when he saw his picture. I asked him if he was ready to go in a plane and he nodded.
“To Disneyland, Alphonse?” I asked again. He started screeching in glee.
There are many things that are difficult for Alphonse, and in turn, for this family. Travel is one of them. Still, we continue to dream that one day, Alphonse will be able to see more of the world. It’ll be a big step, but if we can’t dream big, who can?
Here are some tips we learned from our experience with Alphonse. I hope this helps your loved ones, especially those with autism, with their passport application:
- Set an early morning weekday appointment, the first morning schedule, if possible, so that there are fewer people. If members of the family will be applying or renewing as well, choose the family appointment option. Appointments can be done here: https://www.passport.gov.ph/
- Come early. Bring his/her PWD ID and inform the guard and appointments desk that you have a PWD with you. There is an option to use the Courtesy Lane, particularly for individuals with disabilities who find waiting intolerable.
- Prepare all documents and appointment papers beforehand. Make xerox copies of everything, even the IDs.
- Practice the steps for passport application and renewal. Prepare a social story if needed.
- If the individual with disability cannot sign his/her name, his/her fingerprints will be needed for data collection. Practice using an inkpad or make a toy replica of the scanner for practice.
- Bring all necessary support/materals during the appointment. PECS cards or assistive communications devices are absolutely necessary. Toys and snacks may help in the wait.
- Dress your loved one in comfortable clothing.
- Choose the satellite branch nearest you to reduce the stress of travel and traffic. Some branches have less foot traffic than others. Still, appointments ease the difficulty of application. Walk-ins are sometimes accommodated but I would not suggest this option for PWDs unless absolutely necessary.
In parting, we would like to thank the Department of Foreign Affairs officers and personnel who welcomed Alphonse with kindness and respect. We would have gotten all their names had Alphonse not needed our complete attention. Maraming, maraming salamat po. You all made the process so much easier with your tolerance and understanding.