Empathy nurtured in workplaces with people with intellectual disabilities

Text By: Buena Bernal || Photos By: Dante Diosina, Jr. 

CARMONA, CAVITE, Philippines – To understand another takes some imagining.

Imagine what it would be like to be him and not you. Internalize another person’s lived experience. Consider that there is a reality different from yours.


Jomarie A. Espinosa‘s weekly routine is that of a typical government worker.

He arrives everyday at the Carmona Municipal Hall at 7:41 am, with or without a flag ceremony.


On Mondays when the flag is raised and they each fall in line at the town plaza, he counts – often accurately – who is and isn’t in line.

Wala sa flag ceremony. Late ka (Not in the flag ceremony. You’re late),” he would later tell the tardy state worker matter-of-factly.

Jomarie, 24, serves as an administrative aide at the town’s treasury office.

He arranges in neatly stacked piles stickers for registered vehicles, bundles them together using a rubber band, and places them inside a wooden box he opens and closes in a repetitive motion.

As he opens the box, his head slightly tilts towards it and he extends his neck to the box’s opening seemingly smelling the government stickers as if they are releasing a sweet aroma.

He does this for a time before he proceeds to explaining the rest of his work with the excitement of a man on the first day of his dream job.

In a rushed tone, he enumerates his tasks while pointing to the varied paraphernalia on his table.

“LTFRB,” he points to the car stickers. “Nagfa-filing kasi ako (I file documents),” he says, as he turns each page of the receipt bundle organized based on their series numbers. “Cedula (Community Tax Certificate),” he shows the paper that citizens need to fill out. “Gugupitin ko (I will cut this),” he adds. “Pag naubos, nagbibigay Kuya Ruel. Sasama ka sa bodega (When the paper runs out, Kuya Ruel gives me a new batch. Are you going with me to the warehouse)?” he says all these, almost without once breathing.


Jomarie actually enjoys these tasks and is proud of the work he does.

“Treasury Office. Administrative aide,” he says slowly as he traces with his fingers the letters to these words written below his name on a paper with his photo plastered to the wall above his table.

Ang boss ko si ‘Tres’ (My boss is ‘Tres’),” he says, referring to the municipal treasurer.

He shows a sample tax certificate he helps seal, and says he brings this first to Ate Norma and then to his boss “Tres” (shortened form of the word treasurer). “Papirma po (Please sign),” he tells the boss.

During mornings when the cashiers are not yet around but there are already clients arriving, he tells the applicant-clients with a toddler’s grin: “Ma’am, Sir, upo po kayo (Ma’am, Sir, please sit down)!”

He enters the treasury office noticing who is gone.

Si Kuya Dondi absent. Absent si Kuya Dondi (Kuya Dondi is absent. He is absent),” he makes the announcement to the office staff.

In truth, Dondi is not absent but is out on a state-sponsored training for government workers. Jomarie has been told this. He just hasn’t remembered.

“Leave?” he asks his supervisor, after he was lovingly corrected. “Ah,” he adds, like an attendance compliance officer.

People with autism like Jomarie are routinely employed in the town of Carmona.


This is Jomarie’s second try at the treasury office. He was first deployed to the revenue collection unit, but he experienced a bout after feeling too much pressure with too little workload. He prefers to be working 8 am to 5 pm nonstop except during scheduled breaks. He likes it when there are jokes passed around and smiles exchanged.

Jomarie walks to a nearby table. “Kuya RJ. Working!” he exclaims to the man in front of a desktop computer, as he gives RJ a high five.

He now works for the licensing unit, which releases business permits for investors in Carmona. He says he is looking forward to the month of January, when the one-stop shop is set up in town for business permit applications. He knows his work is important. He says he will make sure he will be in the January fair.

Under a government circular, these applications need to be processed within 30 minutes. Jomarie is up for the challenge.

On days the applications are scarce, his direct supervisor Teresa P. Laurora assigns him to assist in other units.


Gusto niya laging may trabaho, laging may ginagawa (He wants to be constantly working, constantly on the move),” says Teresa.

A few seconds later, Teresa sheds tears. “Masaya lang po (I’m just happy),” the 20-year government service worker says.

Jomarie remains oblivious of the scene, as if a crying supervisor is a normal occurrence in the workplace.

He walks around, passes documents to other staff members.


“Ballpens, rubber band, stapler,” he notes verbally the supplies he is tasked to get from the warehouse.

On the days he goes to the warehouse, Jomarie is sweat-soaked. But he doesn’t mind. All tasks are equal to him, the way his co-workers are all likeable in his eyes.

“… Kuya RJ, Kuya Aries, Kuya Raffy, Kuya Tutuy,” he makes a list of his favorite co-workers, actually mentioning everyone in the team.

Jomarie’s reality and way of perceiving the world differs from how the world is perceived by many.

What is noisy chatter that needs to be tuned out for many to continue with their tasks may be intolerable ringing to some people with intellectual disabilities. What is simple human touch that to many may signal connection may be an incomprehensible violation of personal space.

Speech pathologist Kenneth R. Dizon says disability exists in all shapes and sizes.

“Some of these ‘hidden’ disabilities include individuals on the Autism spectrum. Individuals on the spectrum experience the world with heightened sensitivity,” Dizon explains in an interview.

“This means that their sense of hearing, feeling, seeing, tasting and smelling is amplified. High frequency sounds, flickering lights, pungent odors will be painful and hard for them to manage, which will therefore result to uncontrollable tantrums, spacing out or whining,” he explains further.


In workplaces with people with intellectual disabilities (PWIDs), there has to be a level of accommodation for the special needs of PWIDs. The employer first extends accommodation by hiring PWIDs, but co-workers definitely need to accommodate and attend to these needs to ensure continuity of such a pro-PWID program.

And it is a worthy accommodation.

After Jomarie’s first attempt as an aide at the treasury office, he underwent rehabilitation. There was too much noise, too much jokes, too little tasks at the revenue collection unit. There were also co-workers who took offense from Jomarie’s straightforward comments on attendance and tardiness.

Today, most of them understand him better.

Dizon says there are PWIDs who perceive their environment literally, a trait that PWIDs’ co-workers need to empathize with.

“While individuals with social difficulties may seem conversant at face value, these kids will have difficulties understanding ‘abstractions’ or words that doesn’t have a physical association. These includes understanding jokes, knowing what honesty mean and social rules such as personal space. Crocodile tears may be interpreted as a reptile crying in vain than describing someone who is insincere,” he explains.

There is no denying that people with intellectual disabilities who are willing to sweat for a living should be given a shot in the labor force.


Such a space was also given to PWIDs by Quezon City-based Puzzle Gourmet Store and Café, an establishment that hires people with autism and down syndrome who will work alongside trained kitchen staff.

In Carmona, there is also 20-year-old Raichan Mark O. Dearoz, a shy and quiet young man in the Information Technology department.


Raichan speaks in a hushed tone with his mouth barely opening, like there is a secret to be told.

He was first deployed at the Carmona human resources department, until his supervisor discovered his love for computers.


He not only tinkers with softwares but can actually assemble the computer’s processing unit.


Unlike Jomarie, however, Raichan speaks fluently. Raichan simply lacks the social skills Jomarie is known for.


Early detection of intellectual disabilities helps in tailor-fitting special needs programs in schools.


(Note: NBS cannot detect autism but other intellectual disabilities including down syndrome)

“The causes are varied,” says Dr. Melanie Santillan, head of PhilHealth’s Product Team for Special Benefits, for “limitations on intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior.”

But Dr. Melanie Alcausin, current director of the Newborn Screening Reference Center, explains that preventing intellectual disabilities is one of the main goals of newborn screenings.

“If timely screening is done and if diagnosis is confirmed and management is started early, babies with these metabolic conditions may lead normal and productive lives. Judicious long-term management and strict compliance to medication and treatment are important in achieving this goal,” says Dr. Alcausin.

Photo by Faye Sales
Photo by Faye Sales

“At present, there are two kinds of newborn screening being offered, the basic six-disorder screening and the expanded newborn screening, which screens for 28 disorders. The six disorders are Congenital Hypothyroidism (CH), Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia, Phenylketonuria (PKU), Maple syrup Urine disease (MSUD) Glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency, and Galactosemia. CH, PKU and MSUD may lead to intellectual disabilities if not detected and managed early,” she explains further.

Dr. Mary Antonette Y. Remonte, MDG Team Leader of PhilHealth, also explains that newborn screenings “can be availed of in rural areas… These facilities are located all over the country – rural or urban.”

Each PhilHealth-accredited birthing facility is required to have NBS services.

“As of December 2015 there are 2981 accredited birthing homes,” she says, based on PhilHealth statistics.

There are, however, some areas where birthing facilities are inaccessible to community members.

Not all local public schools have special education centers or programs, despite children from low-income families relying on government institutions for early learning and development.

People with intellectual disabilities battle social stigma, unemployment during working age, as well as exclusion resulting from misinformed biases.

But early detection and subsequent intervention as well as accessibility of special needs programs will hone their abilities and special talents at a much earlier age.

“One of the most important factors to determine success in therapy is early intervention. Once a kid is identified with difficulties in speech, parents need to take an active role in seeking necessary services for the child,” Dizon explains.

In geographically isolated areas, families can rarely afford therapy for their children with intellectual disabilities.

Photo by Faye Sales

In the village of Gais-Guipe in Northern Philippines, the family of 7-year-old Rolando ‘Andoy’ Mercado who was born with down syndrome relies solely on the special education program of the local government for his transition needs. His mother Edna says there are even days Andoy is unable to attend school due to the travel cost and allowance needed. His father Joselito’s earnings as a farmer do not always suffice for him and his siblings.

Dr. Melanie Santillan, head of PhilHealth’s Product Team for Special Benefits, says the state health insurance firm “recently approved the benefits for children with disabilities that shall cover assistive devices and sessions of rehabilitation for development disabilities.”

“The details of operationalization are still being drafted and shall undergo series of stakeholder consultations prior to publication of the circular,” she explains.

In many instances, a simple mention of the name of a person with disability or observations in their behaviour elicits laughter and ridicule.

Photo by Faye Sales

Among his peers, Andoy is called many derogatory names that shame him and relegate him as an anomaly. He is the first to laugh when he is called such things; no tinge of hurt seen in his eyes.

But a simple understanding of PWIDs’ needs can also change this.


Workplaces like that of Carmona and Puzzle have become perfect spaces to expand this understanding.

Napakalaki ang naitulong ng trabaho ko dito sa Puzzle. Dati nakikita ko lang sa publiko ‘yung mga taong may autism at may down syndrome pero hindi ko alam kung bakit at ano ang mga ugali nila (Working in Puzzle is such a big help for me. I only ever see people with intellectual disabilities in public before, but I did not know about their traits),” says 38-year-old kitchen worker Rhodora ‘Dhoray’ Bolina, who now knows better than to laugh at people with similar conditions.


Rhodora says she has learned to help pacify the fears of her PWID-co-workers.

Iyong may ibang pagkakataon kasi… ‘pag nagkamali sila kinakabahan din sila (There are times when they have bouts, like that, not that they are making a scene, it’s just that when they commit a mistake, they start getting scared),” she said.

Kailangan lang din na kausapin sila ng mahinahon na hindi mali ang ginagawa nila at okay lang magkamali (You just need to calmly talk to them that they are doing things right and that it is okay to make mistakes),” she added.


Another Puzzle worker, Edward Caesar C. Lagustan, says his PWID-co-workers are like younger siblings to him having worked at the store for two years.


Parang napalapit na rin po ‘yung loob ko sa kanila kasi hindi po sila iba… at matuturi ko po silang pamilya (I have become closer to them because to me they are not different… I treat them as family),” says Edward.


Kasi po dati, una, parang iba po sila. Pero ngayon noong nakasama ko sila sa mahabang panahon, mas lalo ko naintindian kung bakit sila ganoon (Before, I saw them as different. Now that I’ve interacted with them for a long period, I understand them better),” he explains.

Edward says there are times his PWID-co-workers suddenly stay silent or turn red and cry. He says some of them used to fear cooking oil but now can cook their own snacks, like potato fries and fried chicken.


Carmona revenue collection clerk Nael M. Doblada, Jomarie’s former supervisor, says her work with Jomarie has made her a better parent to her two teenagers whose needs now differ from when they were still pre-adolescents.

Parang siya naging baby namin rito. Para kasing meron kang dapat intindihin… Unawain mo ‘yung sarili niyang diskarte (Jomarie has become like our son here. It’s like there is someone you need to understand better… Empathize with his own strategies),” she explains in tears.

Photo by Buena Bernal

Wilfredo F. Concho, senior administrative assistant and Raychan’s co-worker at the Carmona IT unit, says he learned about “iyong bang sistema ng diplomasya (a system of diplomacy)” that needs to be utilized when dealing with PWIDs.

Jomarie, for his part, adores his office which to him is a space where play and income generation intertwines.

He said of his first salary: “Chicheck ng pera. Bawal mawala. Nilagay ko lang sa bag. Bigay lola ko, tita ko, magulang. Thank you. (I checked the money. It can’t be lost. I placed it in my bag. Gave some to my grandmother, my aunt, my parents. Thank you.)”

May ID yata dito (There is an identification card here)!” he exclaimed when asked why he loves the Carmona town hall’s treasury office.

Luma na ID ko. Pero wala pang bonus (My ID is already old. I have no bonus yet),” he adds immediately, like a balancing act.

Jomarie’s reasons for loving his workplace or at least what he can communicate as his reasons may differ from what binds many to their jobs, certainly not merely their work identification cards.

But co-workers of people with intellectual disabilities like Jomarie say the presence of PWIDs makes a lot of difference.

Photo by Buena Bernal

Iyong aura, panay laging masaya (The aura here is always joyful),” says revenue clerk Nael.

Lagi siyang pinaalalahanan kami (He always reminds us of the rules),” says licensing officer Teresa.

People with disabilities who are employed are transforming workplaces. Beyond that, they’re transforming people.

Understanding people with intellectual disabilities can only happen when they are included in the spaces we navigate on a daily basis, including and especially the workplace.

What they take home as co-workers of people with intellectual disabilities is the acknowledgement that each person has his or her own separate reality which needs some level of understanding, providing them an impetus to imagine what the world is from another person’s lens.

The world of work is a wonderful opportunity to bring out the tenderness in people. (END)


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“This story was produced under the ‘Media & PWID: Covering Stories on Capabilities and Contributions Media Training and Fellowship Program’ by Probe Media Foundation and Unilab Foundation. The grant-giving bodies have no editorial control over content and information-gathering.”

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