It has been said that a government’s greatness is measured “by how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”
The same test applies to Congress as well, where on tax matters, we will be adjudged more by how we have helped those who have fallen through cracks, than by how we were able to plug the leaks.
This bill is about those in the shadows – the hidden many who do not have the muscle to lobby, nor possess the powerful voice for them to be heard above the clamor of the political season.
Some are not capable of speech. But their muted state explains far more eloquently than words could ever be on why this bill must be passed.
This bill has two aims:
First, to exempt persons with disability (PWDs) from paying the VAT on certain goods and services.
Second, to provide additional income tax exemption to those who are caring for a PWD.
Among the goods and services to be taken out of VAT coverage are medicines; medical and dental services; hospital and laboratory fees; and local transport fares.
So if a PWD rides a plane, train, ship or bus to any local place, he will not pay the sales tax on the ticket. And if, upon reaching his destination, he orders food in a restaurant in the hotel where he is checked in, he does not pay a VAT on both.
Second, this bill seeks to make a person with disability a dependent for income tax purposes.
A child, parent, or even a legal guardian of a PWD, regardless of age, who is incapable of self-support, can therefore claim additional tax exemption for the said dependent.
The tax deduction is the same as what is currently claimed by a parent of a child not over the age of 21, which is 25,000 pesos annually.
Because the bill specifies the caregiver as the one who can avail of the exemption, then a child who has a disabled parent in his care under his roof can claim the tax relief.
This is in response to the situation faced by millions of families today who have turned their residences into homes for the aged.
This is so because we have a culture which frowns upon the practice of letting strangers care for a parent. Even for those who are willing and wealthy enough to buck convention, there are few such facilities here.
This has forced many of us to put hospital beds in our rooms—with a pharmacy we can barely stock—to care for our elders who draw comfort from familiar faces, as much as from modern medicine.
It is only right to remove the age criteria for a PWD-dependent because caring for him or her does not have a fixed expiry date. In many cases, it extends from cradle to grave.
So before those who have a zero-tolerance against tax breaks can whip out their calculators and show the multiple zeros to scare us that this bill will hemorrhage funds, the question that should be asked of them first is this: Is P25,000 a lavish – or labis – reimbursement for the annual cost of caring for a PWD? Or is it kulang?
The parents of an autistic child who make ends meet to pay for an exhausting and expensive care for their child will say: It is not enough.
The guardians of a paraplegic who push him up footbridges so he can attend school and himself to his dreams will say: It is not enough.
The children of those in the twilight of life who are slowly being robbed of memories but still rage, rage against the dying of the light, will say: It is not enough.
The siblings of a teener who had and would never see a sunrise, or the glow of a full moon, who sees the world through the raised dots in a paper, will say: It is not enough.
In fact, Mr. President, even if we pass this bill, and even if we make it more generous, it won’t be enough to pay for what we owe the PWD nation.
So let this be just our continuing amortization of the huge debt we owe them as we vow to increase our subsequent payments.
For example, with the budget season about to start, we can install more and wider accessibility ramps in next year’s national budget.
In the current year’s budget, there is a P100 million earmark for the purchase of books and equipment for special education. We should expand this next year.
We can also attach a special provision to the DepED budget which pegs the number of special education classrooms to be built next year.
Also in the 2015 budget is a provision which reserves the supply of 15 percent of all school furniture to cooperatives run and managed by PWDs. This procurement earmark is worth P180 million.
This provision should also be applied to other goods as well. Yearly, we have a long shopping list of equipment which many qualified PWD coops can supply.
We should insist on this because PWDs themselves would tell us that the best form of help is a hand up, not a hand out.
We should include PWDs in the CCT program because in the hardship index, none is more deserving of assistance than a disabled person, crippled by poverty.
We should do away with conditionalities because disability in itself is the best precondition for enrolment.
Also in the DSWD budget, we should increase its scandalously-low budget of P11 million for “assistance to persons with disability.”
We should direct more public works funds to construction activities that will make streets, sidewalks, pedestrian overpasses, public buildings, highways fully compliant with accessibility laws.
And to enforce this, we can even command the DPWH to hire PWD consultants to check on the quality of work.
I am mentioning these, Mr. President, because increasing the funds for PWDs programs require initiatives in both the revenue and appropriations side.
So what’s the best companion measure to this bill? It is without doubt the national budget.
We should do all of the above, in addition to passing this bill, because it has been said that the worst kind of disability is being paralyzed from coming to the aid of those who need help.
Much remains to be done. Let me say, however, that we cannot be accused of having Attention Deficit Disorder with respect to the plight of the PWDs.
I already mentioned the various budget initiatives which, I will be the first to concede, need to be increased and expanded.
Second, let me point out that in the last Congress, when it was the Senior Angara who was here and not the Better Angara, the bill on granting higher income tax exemptions for PWDs, which I authored, was passed by the Senate, and the House passed its version too, but failed to be reconciled by a bicameral conference.
There is also the apprehension that this bill will be hard to implement, a fear being fanned so as to abort it, but which falls flat on its face on two counts. First, there’s already a system being followed with respect to VAT exemptions granted to seniors; second, on the matter of increasing tax deductions for PWDs, it will not complicate filing as much as the new complicated ITRs do.
Implementation can be hurdled. Yes, work needs to be done, but this pales in comparison to the handicap and hardship that PWDs have to overcome every day.
The challenge is to do more for them because at 1.6 million, both their number and the neglect they suffer are too many and too severe to be ignored.
Maraming salamat po.