Michael loves to be with people, he also loves sports.
He doesn’t talk much and often mumbles to himself if you happen to pass him by the corridor. He works for the Philippine Information Agency (PIA), the national government’s official communication arm.
Michael Almendrala, 48, works as an administrative aide for the Human Resource Development Division. At least twice every month, he diligently delivers the payslips of all PIA Central, NCR, and MIMAROPA employees.
He calls everybody by his or her first names and greets a pleasant “Good morning!” or “Good afternoon!” before handing out the slips.
“Every time I see Michael enthusiastically delivering our pay slips, I really feel happy. He is the bringer of good news, indeed!” recalls Jell Guzman-Pacio, an Information Officer of the PIA-National Capital Region Regional Office.
“His day is usually spent encoding forms, filing and retrieving records, and photocopying documents here at the HR, you know, the usual stuffs,” says Lea Lim-Martin, a co-employee.
“Michael also has a gift,” Jell says with a grin. “Amazingly, he knows every office personnel and their birthdays here in the Central Office, and never fails to send friends a beautifully written greeting card or sometimes, even a gift. Even when he’s abroad, Michael makes it a point to send you a birthday card at lease,” she adds.
He is also a champion power lifter (1 gold, 2 silver medals, in powerlifting during the 2009 Special Olympics in Dublin, Ireland) and a very good bowler. He has won numerous trophies and medals both here and overseas, in both sports, and during most of those times, representing either the PIA or the Philippines in various competitions. His most recent accomplishment is bagging the championship for a bowling event during the Special Olympics held in Australia.
But it goes beyond his people skills and athletic prowess that make Michael special and endearing to the people of PIA.
You see, Michael has been diagnosed with autism early in life, and remarkably he has learned to cope up with this form of mental, emotional, and behavioral disorder.
For in the sidelines, he has been the recipient of numerous recognitions, including one of the “Top Ten Model Employee with Disability Award” given by the National Council for Disability Affairs (NCDA) and the National Children’s Hospital.
According to the World Health Organization, over a billion people have some form of disability worldwide. Here in the Philippines, and based on the 2010 National Census, of the 92.1-million household population listed, some 1.6-percent have disability.
“It was during the time of then Press Secretary Joel Paredes in 1999 when the PIA decided to hire Michael and implemented a program for the employment of the differently abled,” says NCR Regional Director Riza Baldoria, as she fondly recalls that it was a relatively new concept for the Agency back then.
Personally, I got to know Michael while playing badminton. Out of curiosity, when I first asked him if he wanted to play the game he did not respond. But to my surprise, he appeared before me at the badminton court during one of our lunch breaks and he had with him his trusty badminton racquet, two shuttle cocks, and a bottle of water.
We played during that time when the PIA’s badminton court was still on the ground floor of the building. He was a crafty player, though I must admit, he really knew how to “smash” or “drop” the shuttlecock away from where I stood.
“Mike, you ready to play badminton?” I would ask him soon after before every lunch break every chance I get, and then he would say in a low-tone, garbled voice, “Miss you...” or something like that, and at that point he would say, “Hi Jerome!” Then, I would see him by the badminton court afterward, carrying with him all his sports equipment and his water bottle. Whenever he did not reply to an invitation, it meant he is not ready to play on that day, and he won’t show up by the play area.
Perhaps not everyone in the PIA knows this, but the Unilab Foundation’s “Project Inclusion” (Yes Unilab, the pharmaceutical giant) got its inspiration from the PIA’s practice of hiring, and then providing workplace customization for persons with disability or PWDs, just like what the Agency did to Michael. The PIA, however, did not give him special treatment, but only addressed his reasonable accommodation.
But despite Michael’s positive experiences at the Agency, the NCDA maintains that among the issues faced by PWDs in the Philippines at present include discrimination, poverty, education opportunity, inaccessible public transportation and infrastructure, and a limited chance for employment or promotion.
However, Michael is one of the PIA’s success stories. He, just like countless other PWDs who are in the workforce, has succeeded in his endeavors despite the challenges brought about by disability. He has proven that his abilities help contribute to PIA’s operations, and in some modest way, to the Agency’s overall prestige.
I am proud to say that the PIA, in its 30 years of service to the Filipino people, has helped Michael realize some of those dreams by giving him equal employment opportunities, welfare promotion, and by providing a barrier-free workplace absent of any general negative attitude pervasive against persons with disability. By his example, the Agency has become a catalyst for change by encouraging other institutions to do the same.
Way forward, also in support of Republic Act 7277, or the Magna Carta for Disabled Persons and President Rodrigo Duterte’s inclusivity policy, the PIA could even take the lead among government agencies in creating a PWD-friendly website, for example. Or perhaps, during the broadcast of its regional round-ups or television programs, it could provide sign language interpreters for the hearing-impaired. No matter what the means, setting guidelines that favor PWDs are quite challenging at first, and often take up additional resources, but the returns, as proven by the story of Michael, are priceless and rewarding. After all, Filipinos with disability are resilient, capable, and always determined to prove their worth.