Philippines: Seizing Opportunity Despite Disability

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Ten-year-old John Mark Verzosa is the dance champion at his school in New Era, Philippines, located on the outskirts of Tacloban City. When John Mark performs, usually at his school or the local town hall, other students, teachers, and community members crowd in to watch. His vouging and hip-swinging moves to "Gentleman," a K-pop song by South Korean musician Psy, are the crowd’s favorites.

John Mark also excels in school, although his first career choice is to be a professional dancer. Off the dance floor, he is a quiet, studious boy who is still not quite used to the limelight.

At home, holding her son’s dance medals in her hands, John Mark’s mother Janeth tears up as she remembers how life was for John Mark before he discovered dancing. Born with only one leg, John Mark was mocked and teased by his peers and viewed by some community members as a burden to his family of eight.

“When John Mark was born I decided to not have any more children so I could focus on giving him a good life,” said Janeth. “I’ve always believed in him and told him he could do whatever other children could do.”

While dancing, John Mark balances without assistance on one leg. To get around elsewhere, John Mark uses one crutch on his left side to help him balance. For years he used a rough, locally made wooden crutch. It helped him to navigate across the uneven roads and grassy slopes of his home village, but it was not fitted properly and the lack of cushioning on the handle often left him in pain.

In January 2014, a Handicap International mobile team responding to Typhoon Haiyan, which devastated the Tacloban area and New Era with 150 mph winds, discovered John Mark. Handicap International Physical Therapist Iris Fortuna fitted him with a new padded aluminum crutch that would allow him to walk pain free.

When visiting John Mark and Janeth in February 2014, Iris watched as John Mark came flying down the road to meet her, running with his crutch just as fast as the other children. “I know my son will find success in the future,” Janeth told Iris.

“John Mark is still working on bridging the gap between what he was told he was capable of and what he is actually capable of doing,” Iris said. “With continued encouragement, I think John Mark will not let his disability prevent him from seizing opportunities.”

Handicap International launched emergency operations in and around Tacloban just days after the storm, which struck on November 8, 2013. In addition to distributing emergency supplies and clearing debris, mobile teams have been seeking out and case managing the injured and disabled as well as other vulnerable people. Numerous people, who were disabled before the typhoon, received their first ever treatment for their disability when they were identified by Handicap International in the months following the storm.