The Philippines Disability Rights Movement Goes to Court
By Michelle Favis
One of the biggest barriers to disability rights enforcement in the Philippines is the court system. The Philippines' courts have never even heard a disability rights case. But advocate Manuel Batac aims to change that.
Batac, chair of the Accessibility Task Force Building Inspection of the Caloocan Development Committee for Persons with Disability, is testing the strength of the court's commitment to disability rights. He has filed cases with the Department of Justice against a group of restaurants located in Caloocan City, for violations of the Accessibility Law and the Magna Carta for Disabled Persons. Both pieces of law call on public establishments to provide appropriate access features for persons with disabilities. These are the first cases ever filed in the Philippines against an establishment for noncompliance with the country's disability rights legislation. Mr. Batac, with the support of the National Council on the Welfare of Disabled Persons (NCWDP), has worked to get the cases accepted by the Philippines government for over a year.
Batac claims that the defendant restaurants, including Rich Apple Restaurant, Henlin Restaurant, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Max's Restaurant, have all failed to comply with the guidelines and implementing rules of the Accessibility Law. The accusation is not that the owners did not provide access, but that the way in which the accessibility features were constructed is problematic. For instance, Max's Restaurant provides an entrance ramp for persons with disabilities, but the ramp's slope surpasses the 1:12 gradient requirement specified in the law, making it too steep for a person in a wheelchair to use. Furthermore, the ramp leads directly into a busy street - a situation that Batac decries as a safety hazard.
Henlin Restaurant has also failed to provide a suitable ramp. Other barriers at the restaurants include inaccessible restrooms, unusable elevators, lack of non-stairs access at the entrance, and a lack of non-stairs access to the main areas of the establishment. The restaurants fail to provide disabled parking and non-skid flooring, both of which are required by law.
All of the restaurant owners reject Mr. Batac's accusations, claiming that they have "substantially complied" with the laws. Initially, Batac tried to persuade the owners to renovate their features voluntarily to meet accessibility standards. He wrote letters urging the owners to work with his committee (which also includes a group of architects and engineers that offer assistance with needed construction). But the restaurant owners failed to respond to 12 months' worth of requests. Seeing their unwillingness to cooperate, Mr. Batac took legal action by filing complaints at the Department of Justice (DOJ) last year.
The DOJ responded unfavorably to Mr. Batac's complaints. State Prosecutors Aristotle Reyes and Melvin J. Abad, who are responsible for the investigations, rejected all four cases on a "lack of merit." In their Joint Resolution, they stated that the restaurants have "substantially complied with the mandates of the law," and claimed that the Accessibility Law "is not a penal statute designed to punish persons for violations of its provision, but one aimed at voluntary compliance." However, the wording of the Accessibility Law explicitly contradicts the Prosecutors' conclusion. Section 4 of the Law states, "the person in charge of the construction, repair or renovation of the building, space or utilities shall be criminally responsible for any violation" of the act.
The DOJ staff made other controversial interpretations of the law. They argued that, since the establishment owners were granted licenses and permits from certain government agencies, "it cannot be disputed that they religiously complied" with the law. Batac countered this notion, and other claims by the DOJ, in his Motion for Reconsideration, which the NCWDP assisted him in preparing. In the Motion, he noted that the city officials' approval alone does not prove compliance, especially considering that not all building officials are even familiar with the Accessibility Law and the Magna Carta. This reasoning was apparently not enough for the DOJ, which dismissed Mr. Batac's Motion for Reconsideration.
As a result of the DOJ's hard stance, the battle against the restaurant owners has shifted to a fight against the government, whose actions NCWDP and Mr. Batac view as a an attempt to curtail their human rights. NCWDP's Deputy Director Mateo Lee describes the DOJ's decision as "pro-employer" and an indication of a lack of sincerity towards citizens with disabilities. According to Deputy Director Lee, "The DOJ is rejecting the opportunity to educate others about the law." He feels that this is probably because the Department itself is "ignorant of the law." The DOJ has declared that only the Department of Public Works and Highways, and not individuals, can make formal complaints concerning inaccessibility. But Batac states, "We are the victims. We have the right to file a case with the DOJ... to use their facilities."
The Next Move
On April 24, 2002, Mr. Batac filed for a Petition for Review to the DOJ's Secretary Hernando Perez, hoping that the Secretary will either change the Prosecutors in charge of the cases and conduct another investigation, or urge the current Prosecutors to look deeper into the cases and overturn their decision of dismissal. In order to file the Petition, Mr. Batac had to be carried up two flights of stairs, where Secretary Perez's inaccessible office is located. "I want him to see me in person," said Mr. Batac, "so that he will know who this is affecting."
The DOJ could take up to two years to make a final decision. The prospect of a long wait, however, does not deter Manuel Batac, who plans to "go all the way". His perseverance has already led to positive changes, such as Kentucky Fried Chicken's recent renovation of their facilities. Of course, this is not enough for Batac, who wants the government to support his fight. NCWDP's Mateo Lee also wants to secure the government's support. When asked what would happen if another dismissal is announced, Lee says, "We will exhaust all administrative remedies, and go to the President!"