Leila Benaso believes that standing up for human rights is essential to achieve the quality of life that persons with disabilities deserve. Because of this firm belief, she tirelessly juggles her time between her personal life and advocacies to inspire her community and become a role model among persons with disabilities. She sees herself in paving the way towards getting recognized in a society that often excludes them.
A polio survivor, Leila’s personal experiences and involvement with the Special and Differently-abled Persons of Lawaan (SDAPOL) has compelled her to become active in championing for the rights of persons with disabilities in Lawaan. “Ang mga persons with disability dati sa Lawaan, very behind kami. Mas mahirap mamuhay lalo na kung hindi kami knowledgeable sa rights namin (In Lawaan, persons with disabilities are very behind [in terms of access to services and empowerment]. We lack awareness on our rights which makes it difficult for us),” she stresses. “If you are less educated, mahirap ipaglaban ang karapatan mo (it’s difficult to assert your rights),” she said ardently.
To empower persons with disabilities in their humble municipality, Leila, along with other persons with disabilities, organized themselves and formed the Special and Differently-abled Persons of Lawaan (SDAPOL) in 2003. SDAPOL has received a small grant from the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE); however, the grant is limited for livelihood programs. The grant has not addressed an equally important aspect of the members’ development. Soon, the members have parted ways and decided to manage their own livelihood.
After the onslaught of typhoon Haiyan, at-risk groups, especially persons with disabilities have to bear the brunt of the devastation. While many non-government organizations (NGOs) have provided relief assistance, persons with disabilities still lack the awareness and capacity on their roles in DRR. “Maraming nagdatingan na NGO dito. In terms ng mga NGO, maraming financial, food. Nakatulong naman sila, pero kulang pa pagdating sa rights (After Yolanda, NGOs have provided a lot of financial and food assistance, but they have not empowered us on our rights),” she narrates.
In 2015, the Center for Disaster Preparedness (CDP) together with Arbeiter Samariter Bundt (ASB) has implemented a project that seeks to build the resilience of communities in Lawaan and Balangiga, Eastern Samar through the twin track approach: raising the commitment of Local Government Units (LGUs) and empowering the persons with disabilities. It was then known as Project PWDEE: Persons with Disability: Empowered, Engaged. In its second phase of implementation, it is now known as Project Elevate: Marig-on Estehanon.The initiative focuses on strengthening the capacities of rights-holders and duty-bearers to engage in inclusive DRR-CCA activities, advocacy, local development planning, and organizational building and management of persons with disabilities
The said initiative has sparked the interest of then-inactive Leila. “Noong na-organize [ulit] kami, bigla akong nag-active. Bumalik ‘yung sigla ko. Hindi pala ako iyong taong behind. Lahat pala posible kong gawin. Na-inspire ako (When we were reorganized, I became active again. I had regained my vigor. I realized I am not behind, and everything was possible. I was really inspired),” she says proudly.
Her realization has motivated her to become a beacon of hope for persons with disabilities. “Pag nakikita ko ang mga kapwa ko na kumbaga ni hindi sila makapagsalita, hindi nila alam kung paano ipaglalaban ang karapatan nila, hindi nila makukuha, paano sila tatayo, paano nila ipaglalaban, ako rin, nainspire... ang dami kong pwedeng [gawin] para sa sarili ko at pwede sa kapwa ko (Whenever I see my fellow persons with disabilities that they cannot speak out and fight for their rights, I am inspired to strive, because I can do a lot to help myself and others),” Leila explains, and enthuses that the project has initiated the reorganization of SDAPOL after many years. It has also bridged them to government offices which provided them another wave of livelihood support.
“Nararamdaman ko naman na center kami ng project. Kung may magbi-benefit man ay kami iyon (I felt that we were the center of the project, which we would benefit from the project),” she gladly says and shares that she never misses any activity of the project. “I don’t want to miss out kahit isang training. Sa isang araw na wala ako, malaki iyong kakulangan sa knowledge. Sinisikap ko talagang every training, every seminar, lahat, makakadalo ako (I never miss out any training because I feel that I would miss a lot in terms of knowledge if I do not attend one. I make sure that I am always present).”
Leila attributes her sense of deepened commitment to SDAPOL to Project Elevate’s myriad of activities that empower persons with disabilities. “Pagkatapos ng TOT (Training of Trainers), nakikita ko na ang persons with disabilities, pwede namang magturo. Pwede kaming maging trainer. Na-e-enhance ang kaalaman ko, ang abilidad, nao-orient kami [sa mga karapatan] (after the TOT, I have realized that we can train the communities. It has enhanced my skills, my abilities, and we have become oriented with our rights),” she says.
The 40-year old vice president of SDAPOL envisions that the organization would achieve a lot. For her, there is so much to do. Persons with disabilities need to participate, contribute, initiate actions, and advocate to address the burning issues that hinder full development of persons with disabilities: disasters, bullying, access to social services, and inclusion to development plans and budget.
Currently, SDAPOL is gearing towards the organization’s accreditation, and involvement in the local development planning. “We have to be hands-on if we want to become resilient and productive and to gain recognition in the society. You have to give time and dedication,” an optimistic Leila concludes.