“Boys and girls would chase each other. I have a cousin, a girl, who would later lag behind during our games. One time I complained about her slowness. Her mother came over and hugged her. She said my cousin would not play na lang,” he recalled.
In time, the cousins grew bigger and faster, their games rowdier. The children missed the young girl during their games. Someone later explained to young Martin that his cousin was a special child.
“Nalungkot din kami but I saw how my aunt and other cousins cared for her. She’s still being cared for to this day. She still goes to the house during Sunday reunions. She’s the lucky one because she has a support group,” Romualdez said.
The congressman, now running for the Senate as an independent candidate, said his cousin’s story and later events that would happen in his life are the inspirations for his choice of the welfare of persons with disabilities (PWDs) as his advocacy.
“My cousin’s condition exposed me to the inequalities at an early age,” he said.
In the late ’70s, Romualdez was sent to a school in the United States for high school. His father, Benjamin “Kokoy” Romualdez, was then the country’s ambassador the United States.
While friends returned to Manila during school breaks, the 15-year-old Martin chose to spend his free time volunteering in a center for children with cerebral palsy and other crippling medical conditions called the Meeting Street School in East Providence.
Initially, the young boy was told to watch the special children behind a one-way mirror. He later decided to leave the observation room and go inside a classroom “to make myself useful.”
“Except for fetching an occasional second glass of milk or second helping of dessert, there was so little for me to do,” he said. The children were already feeding themselves.
Days later, Romualdez was asked to help some children during their bathroom visits. He spent “the better part of the afternoon running a ferry service to and from the bathroom.”
Romualdez said the experience made him understand that instead of pity, the so-called normal people could do better by creating an environment that would encourage special children to become independent and not be limited by their disabilities.
“Seeing them struggle with the most basic chores like eating, relieving or dressing (themselves) gave me a renewed appreciation for the strength and resiliency of children who were born or suffered disabilities and their families who would take care of them,” he later explained.
At that time, Romualdez took a lot of pictures to document the experience. His shots found their way into a soft cover book, “To Be Themselves: A Teenager’s Inspiring Look at the World of Multiple-Handicapped Children” published by Prentice Hall.
The book launch was held at the United Nations building in New York. His father’s friend, Secretary General Kurt Waldheim no less, was in attendance.
Romualdez has since become a banker and a lawyer. Now a third-term representative of Leyte’s first district, he is also incumbent president of the Philippine Constitution Association (PhilConSa). He and wife Yedda Marie (née Kittilstvedt) have four children.
Romualdez considers the newly-inked R.A. 107541, known as “An Act Expanding the Benefits and Privileges of PWDs” as a personal victory that he shares with the sector, considering that many families with PWD members still prefer not to expose them to the world. Besides, PWDs are not among the hell-raising types who would hold a news conference or two for sustained visibility.
Romualdez recalls instances when he had to egg PWD groups and media “to pressure Malacañang” into signing his pet bill especially after the President’s veto of the Social Security system pension hike law.
The congressman said the new PWD law is an attempt to put the sector’s benefits at par with those of senior citizens.
PWDs now enjoy a 20-percent discount on goods like medicines and services including therapy, medical consultations, dental visitations, transportation, board and lodging and restaurants.
The law also allows tax breaks by as much as P100,000 for employers who hired PWDs.
“Hopefully, the new law would mitigate their cost of living so they can use their resources for other needs,” the Senate hopeful said.
Romualdez said representatives of the finance and social welfare departments are now drafting the internal rules and regulations for the implementation of these perks.
“Pero kulang pa,” he said in an exclusive interview. Once in the Senate, Romualdez plans to file a bill creating a PWD Affairs Office. Current laws benefiting the sector could still use some fine-tuning, he added.
For example, Romualdez wants an equal opportunity measure to ensure that private companies would hire PWDs qualified for jobs in their offices. A call center agent, for example, does not need to run around while taking calls.
This can be done by setting aside a percentage of the manpower for “qualified, industry-matched” PWDs.
“We just need to support them properly. It has always been our argument. If we can do it for senior citizens, we can do it for PWDs. It’s a seemingly small sector of 1.5 million but sa totoo lang, they are about 10 million in the country. In our culture kasi, tinatabi sila, nahihiya ang family especially those who cannot afford to feed their children, much less those who have handicaps,” he said.
Romualdez’s campaign cry “Ibalik Ang Malasakit sa Bayan (Bring Back Compassion to the Country)” also fuses his PWD advocacy with lessons learned from the national trauma called Supertyphoon “Yolanda” that hit Leyte months after his third congressional election.
While the entire province fell on its knees, Romualdez said the crisis also showed how resilient the Leyteños were, proving to the whole world that they were not only survivors. They also valiantly showed their human side, embracing one another and holding hands as they struggled to return to normalcy.
Asked during an #INQLive interview what was unforgettable about the Yolanda experience, Romualdez noted that the disaster “did not erase the people’s humanity.”
“Everybody was traumatized, a victim. But despite all that you could see Filipinos helping one another, lifting one another—literally the dead, the wounded and the helpless. And that really struck me. It was very easy to lose hope but obviously we (held on because of our) faith in God,” he told #INQLive host Arlyn dela Cruz.
Romualdez also noted that the province has not had a man in the Senate for the past 60 years. If he makes it to the Magic 12 tomorrow, Romualdez vows to weave in “malasakit” in all his legislative measures.
“A little compassion applied to our day-to-day lives can spell a big difference to so many” he said.