Empowering Persons with Disabilities through IT

Image of Ms. Jaelene Cristel Mina smiling

For the past two decades, technology has tremendously changed the way we live our lives. We can do video chat with our loved ones overseas in real time. We can edit and share documents, presentations and games anywhere any time. We have our groceries, clothes, gadgets and even cabs right at our doorstep using online apps. We can earn dollars right in the comforts of our homes through online jobs. Technology has also provided persons with disabilities a tool to compete in the knowledge-based economy of today.
The CBM Livelihood Cluster composed of four NGOs working for and with persons with disabilities, in partnership with Microsoft Philippines, CBM Philippines, Ateneo de Manila University/Education Department and NORFIL Foundation will conduct an Employers Forum with the theme, “WE CAN DO I.T. Using Information Technology to Expand Work Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities” to be held on Thursday, 22 November 2018 at Microsoft Philippines, 8th Floor, 6750 Ayala Office Tower 6750 Ayala Avenue Makati.

Image of Ms. Beverly Bravo smiling

The forum’s Keynote message will be delivered by Mr. Nicki Agcaoili, Executive Director for Industry and External Affairs, Information Technology and Business Process Association of the Philippines (IBPAP). The forum will showcase IT-related employment initiatives of private and public institutions for persons with disabilities. Companies hiring persons with disabilities and persons with disabilities employed in the IT industry will also share their success stories.
In the afternoon, a digital literacy training manual for teaching the blind and a website serving as an employment hub for persons with disabilities will be launched to be led by Mr. Rainer Guetler, Country Director, CBM Country Office Philippines.
The Digital Literacy Training Manual is a comprehensive step-by-step guide for teachers and trainers who want to introduce the use of Microsoft productivity tools in tandem with a screen reader software in teaching the visually impaired. The manual also includes modules on soft skills customized to the needs and abilities of the visually impaired.
The manual is written by visually impaired trainers themselves who have shared their years of experience in teaching digital literacy as well as soft skills to the visually impaired. It is a joint project of ATRIEV I.T. Center for the Blind, Microsoft and Ateneo de Manila University, Education Department.
Also to be launched is www.equals.org.ph, an on-line job and livelihood resource hub connecting Persons with Disabilities seeking employment or entrepreneurship in the Philippines managed by Foundation for These-Abled Persons, Inc. (FTI). The website is a place where employers can also post their announcement for job openings.
150 participants from various companies, persons with disability groups, government agencies and local government units are expected to join the forum to learn about best practices and new tools and resources for maximizing an untapped work force called persons with disabilities.

About the Organizers
ATRIEV, or Adaptive Technology for Rehabilitation, Integration and Empowerment of the Visually-Impaired, is a not-for-profit organization that runs a range of training programs on computer literacy, accessible technologies, transcription, and blog writing; language communication and public speaking; and life skills, such as work ethic, working in teams, and self-affirmation for the blind, their families and their communities.
De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde (DLS-CSB), particularly the office of Saint Brother Jaime Hilario Institute (SBJHI) offers free basic computer operations in certificate in computer application, behavioral training and bookkeeping to all persons with disabilities.
Foundation for TheseAbled Persons Inc. (FTI) is a non-profit organization that aims to enable emerging and existing organizations of persons with disabilities to become economically self-sufficient and to meaningfully participate through Capacity development, Bridge-Financing Assistance, Advocacy and Lobbying and Alliance Building.
Leonard Cheshire Disability Philippines Foundation Inc. (LCDPFI) is a national disability focused organization that promotes and protects the rights of PWDs in the Philippines. LCDPFI adapts a one stop shop model that provides livelihood support and employment opportunities for persons with disabilities.

Other Partners
Microsoft (Nasdaq “MSFT” @microsoft) is the leading platform and productivity company for the mobile-first, cloud-first world, and its mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.
Microsoft Philippines, the local subsidiary of Microsoft Corporation, has been constantly bringing innovation and making its technology available to Filipino businesses and individuals since 1995. As a committed and trusted partner in nation-building, Microsoft Philippines has made it its mission to fuel growth and healthy communities, as well as transform locally-based businesses and empower them to compete in the global economy.
Christoffel Blinden Mission (CBM) is an international development organization committed to improving the quality of life of people with disabilities in the poorest countries of the world. CBM addresses poverty as a cause and consequence of disability and works in partnership with local development organization to create an inclusive society for persons with disability.

Carol Catacutan: Shining Light in the World of Darkness

Photo of Carol Catacutan giving a speech

Being a single mother is Carol’s life goal and priority. Acting as the organization’s Chief of Operations, Carol’s shoulders carry the day-to-day operations of the organization from fund sourcing to budget scrutiny to overall supervision of all aspects of the organizational operations. She dedicates the majority of her waking hours to ATRIEV in an effort to run the operations smoothly despite meager funds and limited personnel. It’s only dedication and passion that keeps Carol in her present job. Despite the heartaches and heartbreaks, she continues to strive harder for the organization because she knows that ATRIEV has a purpose and a mission to fulfill.

Watch Carol’s talk about inclusive education during the launch of the Knowledge for Development Center at the Central Philippine University in Iloilo held on May 7, 2009.

Read Carol’s story in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Carolina Catacutan: Shining light in world of darkness

Tony Llanes: But Now I See

Photo of Tony Llanes with camera

Photo of Tony Llanes with camera“Call me blind,” he says, grinning broadly. “I don’t mind. I’ve been totally blind since I was 32.”

Pastor Tony, born half-seeing or with a low vision 51 one years ago, pulls no punches. Here is a man who experienced the worst of life’s ills—none of them in the same league as simply being called blind.

Before he totally lost his sight, he could see shapes and colors, and could read newspaper headlines. To read the news stories in smaller fonts, all he had to do was bring the surface of the paper to his face. “I was as functional as the next guy. I could do anything and everything on my own, including traveling in public conveyances,” he says proudly.

Blindness is a genetic issue in Pastor Tony’s family. They are five siblings and four of them had low vision at birth.

As a child, Pastor Tony’s vision was as weak as his ambition was wild. “The wonders of science and technology captivated me. One of my dreams was—I’ll design the world’s most powerful computer that could be accessed by mental thought projection.”

At age five, Pastor Tony fabricated his own DC-powered electric motor. He pictured himself as a quantum physicist, or an electronics and communication engineer, or even an astronaut. “My curiosity for elementary particles and their properties was exceedingly rapt,” he adds.

“Growing up and going to school were a series of frustrations,” Pastor Tony relates. “My classmates were indifferent, my teachers were impatient, and my grades were insignificant. I experimented with many isms and esoteric philosophies—occult, yoga, The Talmud, you name it. I moved from school to school and my bitterness worsened with every change.”

His sight and his future grew dimmer as well. His older sister encouraged him to enroll at the Philippine Christian University—the only school which took him in. It was here where Pastor Tony’s life began to change.

He enrolled in AB Psychology because he wanted to understand himself better. To ease his loneliness, he joined the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. He would hear them singing gospel songs and they sounded like people of hope. Aside from being happy with their lives, the members welcomed this partially-blind hope-seeker with open arms.

“In this setting and with this group, I discovered hope. Jesus found me. I received Him as my personal Lord and Savior. It was incredible—the changes that happened in my heart!”

He resolved to enroll in biblical and church-related courses—21 units in all. And shortly after that, to everyone’s disapproval and disgust, he moved to the Union Theological Seminary to take up a four-year course in Bachelor of Theology. For him, it was the only way to go, although an extremely difficult one. Because of his impairment, which was perceived as impediment to serving God well, full time, he was denied a scholarship.

On his own, he slogged along. “Only the Lord knows how I survived that first year,” he says when pressed how he managed. On his second year, he was given a scholarship by the Women’s Circle of the Cosmopolitan Church where he was working as a student Pastor.

Finally, it was time for internship. Again because of his handicap, every church he ever applied to either ignored or rejected him. “But as sure as God’s promises, one said, yes!” It was a small church in a remote rural area.”

It was during Pastor Tony’s internship in this church that he graduated and was ordained as a Minister. “I never thought that one day I would offer my life to the Lord in full-time service,” he said with effusive joy.

It was also in that teeny church where two of the most important things in his life happened.

One, he lost totally lost his sight.

Two, he married Eunecy “Necy” Mendoza—also a church worker in another church; and with whom he now shares four beautiful children: Eunice Rosabel , Hezron Elohim, Onycha Shalem, and Zina Shelomi.

“What was it like losing your sight?” I bravely ask. “Was it instant?”

“It must have been like a flickering light suddenly snuffed out,” he explains patiently. “But I didn’t know that then. I could still see images. Yet I was bumping into things—sometimes sharp objects. Many times I had close calls in the highway and even indoors. I couldn’t understand why!”

When he realized he was totally blind, Pastor Tony—together with his family—continued serving God as pastor for another 12 years in different churches and was ordained minister of the Greater Manila Conference (now known as the Lowland Cavite South Manila Conference), United Church of Christ in the Philippines.

In those twelve years, his incapacity to see with his eyes and do a pastor’s job drastically reduced his opportunities to earn enough for a growing family. “But Necy stuck with me,” he beams. “I saw many things through her eyes.”

Pastor Tony also re-discovered the limitless potentials of the passion of his youth—information technology—from Randy Weiser, one of the early leaders of the Resources for the Blind (also producer of Braille Bible for the Blind). From Mr. Weiser, Pastor Tony learned that a blind person can have access to a computer using a voice synthesizer. “I immediately enrolled at the Hadley School for the Blind and took up a correspondence course: Introduction to Micro Computers and Micro Computers and careers. To fend for my family and my schooling expenses, I repaired flat irons, electric fans, television and radio sets, organs, pump boats, vacuum cleaners, etc. etc.”

As an unexpected bonus, his mother bought him a talking computer which facilitated his training. After receiving his certificate of completion, Pastor Tony enrolled at STI so he could have a diploma. That was a cinch for this emerging computer wizard who was now irreversibly drawn to the sector which shared his impairment. Raring to impart his new expertise, he found his way to the Katipunan ng mga Maykapansanan sa Pilipinas, Inc. (KAMPI) where he became an active member.

“I wanted so much to teach my blind friends the computer technology which I now knew by heart. So I started conducting computer training in my own backyard,” he enthuses, vividly painting the teacher-students scenes for me. Soon after his friends imbibed what Tony knew, they pooled their computers together and encouraged more and more blind people to come and train.

“We went into a partnership with TESDA, and soon several organizations such as the STI College, ONET, Overbrook Nippon, Network on Educational Technology, International School Founded by Overbrook School for the Blind, Christopel Blinden Mission (Christian Blind Mission), Wallace Business Forum, came either as working or funding partners,” Pastor Tony recalls.

In 1999, the informal organization composed of a handful of blind friends was turned into an organization to institutionalize it. Its long name—Adaptive Technology for the Rehabilitation, Integration and Empowerment of the Visually Impaired Incorporated (ATRIEV), has been shortened to a nickname by those who are familiar with the organization: School for the Blind.

Over 500 visually handicapped have graduated from ATRIEV. Some went on to pursue higher education; some became transcriptionists, computer instructors, web designers, human resource personnel, researchers; and some chose to be entrepreneurs who create their own marketing and advertising materials based on their computer knowledge.

Like serendipity, I found Pastor Tony’s mission in the ATRIEV website. And I find him in person at the ATRIEV office where he encourages me to look around. I am amazed to watch almost two dozen people either working in the office or having lessons before talking computers. Many of them have their faces one inch away from the monitor, and some listen intently to the audio. They have one thing in common—and it’s not the partial or total absence of sight. It’s the fulfillment of ATRIEV’S vision: to develop and promote information technology to uplift the living conditions of people with visual impairment.

“ATRIEV is now running smoothly with 10 staff members and teachers and with partners providing the needed funding. So what’s next for this organization?”

“You mean this organization for the blind with vision?” he asks facetiously. Then he pauses for what seems like eternity. “I want to train someone to take my place. I want to go back to serving God as a full-time pastor.”

Go back to serving the One who could design the most powerful computer that could be accessed by mental thought projection, I thought, borrowing Pastor Tony’s own words. Excerpt from the book “Flying on Broken Wings” by Ms. Grace Chong, Palanca Awardee