It was a project born from a father’s love for his autistic son.
At the tail-end of 2012, Grant Javier met with Unilab Foundation and shared his fears for the then 4-year-old Pablo. “How will Pablo fare when I’m gone? How will society accept him? Will anybody employ him?”
These were the questions running through Javier’s head at the time, and Unilab gave him the opportunity to be able to answer them through Project Inclusion Network (PIN).
Spearheaded by former Justice Undersecretary Emmeline Aglipay-Villar, whose older sister Mariel has autism, and veteran news anchor Karen Davila, whose son David is also on the spectrum, the recent “Inclusive Flavors” brunch held at Chef Jessie Rockwell Club aimed to draw attention to PIN’s mission of opening up work opportunities for persons with disability (PWDs)—visible and invisible.
Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability that is characterized by difficulty in social interaction and communication, and atypical behavior such as having unusual reactions to sensations, among others.
According to Aglipay-Villar, who proudly disclosed that Mariel has been employed by Jollibee as takeout utensils packer—something their family never thought she would have the opportunity to do—PIN is a nonprofit organization that “provides opportunities for people with disability to thrive, to grow, to learn, to push their boundaries, to break barriers, and, more specifically, to find employment for them.”
Davila explained that PIN not only trains PWDs but companies as well, to better equip workplaces for hiring people with special needs.
As PIN executive director, Javier works hard to empower PWDs, enable disability inclusion in the workplace and engage various sectors of society in forwarding the cause. Even after suffering a heart attack the week before, Javier was determined to push through with the event because he “cannot let go of this.”
As Unilab’s first independent program, PIN has expanded its work to conduct readiness assessment for job-seeking PWDs; prepare them for the workplace through workshops; and provide educational assistance, with the help of its partners.
“In as much as we address the gaps on the side of the jobseekers, we want to enable the employers and coworkers themselves to really make it a win-win situation for everyone,” Javier added. “After all, this is not about charity. It’s about providing a reasonable accommodation and environment for them to be productive and thrive in the workplace.”
PIN communities and coalitions assistant Bless Adriano agreed: “We are no longer just an object of charity, wherein after we are given cash or donation in kind, that’s it. PIN is eyeing projects that have long-term impact.”
Visually impaired from an autoimmune disease called systemic lupus, Adriano was an intern at PIN’s human resources department before she was asked to fully come on board. “Who would have thought that one of the former trainees in now cocreating and codesigning programs for my peers?
“Project Inclusion sees us the way we should be seen, and hears us the way we should be heard,” she added, saying that, as much as possible, PIN’s projects are done through consultations, research and data from the voices of PWDs themselves.
Another PIN beneficiary, Ian Borleo, has pervasive developmental disorder and had been described by doctors as having difficulty in expressing himself and communicating. He was rather eloquent speaking in front of a crowd that afternoon, however, as he chronicled his employment journey with Southstar Drug. Now on his sixth year with the company, he called it his home away from home.
“At Southstar Drug, I’ve met people who showed me the kind of patience and understanding I only used to get from my family. I’m treated like my fellow employees. I am expected to contribute and do my part, and to be honest, I love my job,” he said.
And that is how it should be.
Dignity and respect
Dr. Francis Dimalanta, the current head of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at St. Luke’s Medical Center and a staunch leader in developmental pediatrics in the country, said that the most important thing to remember when interacting with PWDs is that “they are people—their disability is just one of their many characteristics that they have.
“People with disabilities have the same needs we all do. First and foremost among them is to be treated with dignity and respect.” he added.
“Let us remember that ‘inclusion is not tolerance, it is unquestionable acceptance,” Dimalanta said, quoting a popular adage among champions for inclusion. “Clustering people with disabilities into one whole classroom, workplace or social center is not inclusion. Giving special privileges to people with disabilities is not inclusion. Feeling sorry for people with disabilities is not inclusion.”
According to him, inclusion means that all people—regardless of abilities, disabilities or health care needs—have the right to be respected and appreciated as valuable members of their communities; to participate in recreational activities in neighborhood settings; to work at jobs in the community that pay competitive wage and have careers that use their capacities to the fullest (as PIN has been doing for the past decade); and to attend general education classes with peers from preschool to college and continuing education.
“Like all people, every person with disability has ambitions and dreams for their futures. They need quality education to develop skills and realize their full potential,” Dimalanta said. “Yet, people with disabilities are often overlooked in policy-making, limiting their access to education and their ability to participate in social, economic and political life.”
“We have so many laws on disability, so we want the government to keep implementing them,” Javier said. “We have had the law for more than 30 years already.” According to him, around 14 to 18 million Filipinos have disabilities, half of whom are of working age.
PIN works with the National Council on Disability Affairs, the Department of Labor and Employment, the Department of Trade and Industry, Technical Education and Skills Development Authority, as well as local government units for the implementation of disability-related laws, such as Republic Act No. 10524, which is an amendment to the Magna Carta for PWDs expanding the PWD employment requirement for government agencies and companies with over 100 employees.
Soon, they will also be working with the Department Social Welfare and Development, with the appointment of Secretary Rex Gatchalian earlier this year.
When he was mayor of Valenzuela City, Gatchalian put up Valenzuela Special Education Center with the curriculum patterned after Shine Intervention Center, the school of his niece who is also on the spectrum. He described how his brother and sister-in-law struggled to cope with their child’s needs while balancing family life, and he wondered how much more challenging it must be for his constituents who did not have access to any type of intervention.
The school was taking in around 700 kids at that time, he said. “We would hold interventions, then bring them back to their regular public school.”
Then Aglipay-Villar came to him about “expanding the horizon for children who will not be able to go back, who will need life skills so that when they age out, they have a viable path forward,” and introduced him to Javier.
But his experience with trying to help change the landscape for PWDs then was rather traumatic, Gatchalian said. Businesses that promised inclusivity would later recant, citing the difficulty of implementing major upheavals in their policies and facilities, how “it entails changing a lot of things, things that we’re so used to.”
“The business community’s CRS (corporate social responsibility) is tokenism: take a picture, give five wheelchairs, and then that’s considered inclusive,” he lamented. “It’s always, what’s in it for me, rather than what’s in it for the community.”
He said they were asking for a local ordinance or something to the effect that grants tax deductions to companies that hire an X number of PWDs, essentially putting a peso value for each one employed.
“It can be done, but it defeats the very purpose of being inclusive. Hiring somebody with a disability is good for the country, it’s good for the community, it’s good for you, and it’s good for humanity.”
Now, as social welfare secretary, Gatchalian finds himself with actual power to make the changes he was trying to achieve as mayor. He took a look at his agency’s recruitment and workplace policies and realized that it looked like any other company’s framework out there. “The very agency that’s supposed to expand social protection was supposed to be the leader in inclusion was not inclusive, and even our facilities are not accessible.
“If I want to preach, I have to practice first. So one of the things we’re doing now in the department is work on our own first. Make sure that we change the mindset in our department, that we have to be inclusive. And it’s not just coming down once a week celebrating disability week, but rather making it a mainstream activity, a big part of our lifestyle in the department,” he said.
The DWSD needs to venture beyond the spirit of tokenism and be the leader among the departments in making sure that their workplace is inclusive, he added.
The speakers at the Project Inclusion event all have one thing to say: There’s still so much to be done.
Businesses like Jollibee, Southstar Drug, SM, Unionbank and ABS-CBN are active in giving opportunities to PWDs. The companies that have joined the Philippine Business and Disability Network, a platform that “works towards more inclusive and barrier-free workplaces for PWDs,” has grown from an initial five to its current 52 since its inception in 2020.
“But we need hundreds, if not thousands more,” Javier said.