March marks International Women’s Month, but in the Philippines, it’s also where we observe Women with Disabilities Day. Held every last Monday of the month, this special day celebrates the contribution of women with disabilities in nation-building and their tireless efforts to achieve their dreams, fight for equal rights and full participation, and help create change in their communities.
One of these courageous women is Angelita Evangelista, Chief Operating Officer of Tahanang Walang Hagdanan, Inc. (TWHI), a non-stock, non-profit organization that provides programs and services to persons with disabilities (PWDs) to uplift their lives by becoming self-sufficient and contributing members of society.
Through the support of TWHI’s founder, Lita graduated cum laude with a degree in economics at the Trinity University of Asia (formerly Trinity College). Since then, it has become her purpose to give back to the organization that opened doors for her by improving her capacity in the PWD sector. She attended various disability training, including the Rehabilitation of Persons with Disabilities and Workshop Management held in Tokyo through the Japan International Cooperation Agency. She also completed her professional development certificate from the House with No Steps Australia and other disability organizations through the Australian Endeavour Executive Awards.
Below, Looking for Juan talks with Lita about her advocacy, projects, and experiences as a woman leader and champion of the PWD community.
How did you start in Tahanang Walang Hagdanan? Share with us your journey.
In 1975, I was diagnosed with a spine condition called Potts disease. My spinal column was operated on, and I stayed in the hospital for almost a year. Becoming a person with disability is difficult, especially in the mid ’70s when disability is almost comparable to hopelessness. But with my family’s support, I slowly adjusted to my new self. With the help of Sister Valeriana, founder of TWHI, I continued my education and got a placement test to advance to college.
When I was studying at Trinity College, I had to navigate an entirely different environment, which also came with challenges such as inaccessible facilities and cab drivers who would refuse a wheelchair user as a passenger. But instead of losing hope, these situations challenged me to make it work and push for my rights. There were times that I had to wheel myself to and from school or wait for and ask my professors to hold their classes on the ground floor.
I endured these for four years, but I persisted and graduated cum laude and top of my class. Now that I work in the biggest organization for PWDs as its Chief Operating Officer, it’s my turn to give back to the institution that has provided me opportunities by creating and enhancing programs and services to empower more PWDs in the country.
What were the biggest obstacles you overcame as a female PWD executive? Did you ever think it would be less challenging/more complicated if you were male?
For PWDs, inaccessible facilities have always been our struggle regardless of gender or status. For instance, in my line of work, attending meetings and conferences (both local and international) is one of the tasks which I am anxious about at times, especially plane travel. Even though BP 344 or the Accessibility Law has already been passed, there are still places that are non-compliant but still claim that they are PWD-friendly. These venues usually have narrow or heavy doors, deep pile carpet, or no ramps or elevators, hindering our mobility.
I don’t think it would be less challenging if I were male, as PWDs face almost the same difficulties every day. We only differ in the way we approach or deal with these challenges.
What are the advantages of being a woman in your line of work? Alternately, what kind of prejudices, if any, did you have to face, and how did you overcome these?
Being a person with disability has some simple joys. It enables you to look at the world through a different lens. It makes me smile to see the good in people through simple gestures, such as opening doors for you, helping you get items out of reach, or going out of their way to ensure you’re comfortable.
In my line of work, where effective communication is a must, I always adhere to logical rather than emotional talk in decision-making. Some feel that because I’m a woman, I can easily be swayed, but I always carry myself with confidence and authority to show that I am capable and should be respected regardless of my gender.
How did being a woman help you progress in your work? Did you have any realizations from your years of being a female leader of PWDs?
Being a woman and having a disability should not be a hindrance to becoming a leader or advancing in your career. Anyone can negotiate life with disability once self-acceptance is in place. When you are brave enough to leave your comfort zone, you’ll see opportunities available for PWDs to have a capable life. Empower yourself through knowledge. Learn about your rights and seize the opportunities available to you.
Lita Evangelista with Pablo Beltran (seated, right) during the launch of the coffee table book Inspire/Empower: Images and Stories of Persons with Disabilities in the Philippines in 2019
How does TWHI champion women with disabilities and PWDs in general?
TWHI has always been at the forefront in advocating for PWDs. Since its inception in 1973, it has produced leaders in the disability sector fighting for the rights of women and PWDs in general.
It’s considered a pioneer in the industry and the biggest employer of PWDs in the country. More than half of its 250-strong workforce are women, holding considerable positions, creating confidence, leading their teams to productivity, and teaching them various employable skills in the open industries.
We have various programs and services to help build the capacity of PWDs. These include our rehabilitation and skills training in our four workshops (metalcraft, woodcraft, packaging, and sewing), education through our sponsorship and scholarship program, mobility aid assistance, sports and recreation, temporary shelter, and referrals for visually and hearing-impaired people. We also have linkages with various government agencies for those needing medical referrals.
Are there any significant project/s you are currently working on, and how will they make a difference?
We are currently preparing for our golden anniversary on February 21, 2023. We intend to honor and give tribute to our supporters, benefactors, and allies who are ardent advocates of PWDs and made Tahanang Walang Hagdanan stronger.
We also have a project called “Access 2023: Race for PWD Rights.” It’s an advocacy project to strengthen accessibility for wheelchair-friendly establishments, streets, and pavements. Through this effort, we hope to achieve accessible transportation for PWDs, including optimum transportation services in airlines and other modes of transportation in our communities.
If you had the option to advise girls with disabilities who want to achieve their dreams, what would that be? What is your message for women in general?
For girls and women with disabilities, get out of your shell and keep chasing your dreams. It may be challenging, but the key is to keep trying and face your fears head-on. The road to reach your goal will not be smooth. Life will throw you obstacles so you can learn how to be a good driver of your own life and future.
I feel that it’s also vital to address families living with PWDs because empowerment starts at home. Disability is not disabling if we focus on what our loved ones can do and celebrate their victories and milestones. And, when possible, build their capacities by teaching them how to be independent and self-reliant so they can have the confidence to navigate through life.