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Jaime Silva, Redesigning life goals towards productivity in blindness - By Monalinda Cadiz

Tue, 07/14/2015 - 14:42 -- anshuman.singh

As a young, full-fledged architect in the Philippines, Jaime Silva dreamed of owning a successful design firm and a fast car. But congenital glaucoma caused his eyesight to deteriorate quickly in his late 20s, turning him totally blind before 40. Now in his 60s, Silva’s path with blindness led him to becoming a corporate executive, civic leader, advocate, and motivational and technical speaker.  Conquering a condition commonly perceived as debilitating, Silva’s hard work seems to mimic a mythical king who turns everything he touches into gold.
“I may not be able to realize my dream of driving fast cars, but I’ve done what I could to be productive,” says Architect Silva. His journey adapting to a life without sight is borne of one of his apparent excesses- perseverance.
Long ago, Silva’s father reminded him of his deteriorating eyesight vis-à-vis the necessity for a keen visual faculty when the younger Silva told his family he wanted to study Architecture in college. His love for building design would not let up, however, finishing the degree and subsequently passing the Architecture state board. But reality caught up with him, and as soon as he opened his own design firm, unbearable headaches set in signaling the worsening condition of his eyesight. He was married by then and had a child. Hopeful that he can still be cured, he spent eight years shuttling between the Philippines and the US for a total of 18 eye surgeries.
“Then one day, my wife said that we have been too focused on my eye problem, and suggested that we change our paradigm,” recounts Silva. Conceding to the truth, Silva shifted his sights to other business ventures to find his niche. He subsequently tried different ventures ranging from buy-and-sell to retail. But he was ill-at-ease with volatile market situations.  “I did not like the feeling that I could not control situations affecting my trade,” confides Silva.
Shifting focus while adapting to life with blindness
“My first six months after closing down my last enterprise was characterized by being confined to a chair, reading all day and desperately thinking what to do. It was a wretched feeling; I also seemed invisible to people around me. Maybe they were hesitant to interact with a blind. Then one day, I was fortunate to come upon this NGO teaching computers,” remembers Silva. That was the turning point in his life as a blind.
Later on, through his kin and social networks, he suddenly saw himself getting involved with his first love- building and construction. With his technical expertise, he feverishly worked as a consultant, co-representing developer-owners to monitor and evaluate the progress in the construction of a building. Three years later, the DPC Place building, a high-rise structure in the commercial hub Makati City was finished. The owners developed full trust in Silva’s technical and management competence that when the building was ready to lease, he was tasked to manage the property.
Property management was a new world to Silva, added to the fact that at the time, market was down owing to the infamous Asian crisis at the turn of the millennium. He then enrolled for a full course on property management to learn further about its intrinsic components such as engineering operation and maintenance, accounting and finance, leasing, and legalities. When he took over management of the building he himself helped build, he was confident and competent at it. By this time, apart from his day job, Silva was also helping out in maintenance management of residential properties in subdivisions.
Despite the Asian crisis, the DPC Place building was able to lease out to tenants without any agent to go-between. Years later, the building he was managing was awarded with a seven-star, the highest recognition given to a property by the city for compliance to fire safety. This further boosted the image of the building which, after more than a decade, still teems with thriving businesses.
Then Silva extended his sight beyond his building towards the community of their location. He soon found out that poor street lighting, garbage collections, and rampant street crimes or even burglary would drive away tenants from the whole stretch of businesses in their street. Alarmed, Silva started to invite neighboring property owners, and before he realized it, they had a neighborhood watch, with the local government in full support. The group has even been registered to formalize the association. News about his brand of leadership must have spread, that he was soon invited by other groups in the city to either lead or be involved in community-related concerns and events.
Giving back to society
With his growing reputation and as member of the United Architects of the Philippines, he found himself in yet another sphere related to his profession and much so, to his blindness. Advocacy groups and the government agency with the thrust to support persons with disabilities sought Silva’s technical and leadership support on the issue of accessibility, particularly built environment. The effort essentially enforces a national legal mandate that adopts the international Accessibility Law. A highlight of the accessibility law is the adherence of buildings and other facilities to availability of ramps, toilets for PWDs, reserved parking for PWDs, signages, and unobstructive doors and entrances.  
Architect Silva was then sent as the Philippine delegate to a training on non-handicapping environment in Bangkok. This enabled Silva to provide seminars and audits to building officials and architects at the national capital region, lecturing about accessibility law and conducting walkthrough audits to evaluate compliance of a building to accessibility law. The training organizer in Bangkok, the Asia Pacific Development Center on Disability, was impressed of Silva that in its visit to Manila, offered to fund a nationwide accessibility project.
“At first, I was wondering what kind of project I would propose because I didn’t have experience on it. So I convened a technical working group which included government and other experts and came up with a non-handicapping environment project to be implemented nationwide,” narrates Silva.
Launched in 2007, the five-year project aimed to bring accessibility law enforcement to the poor rural municipalities. This was done through awareness raising, policy advocacy and monitoring of infrastructures and services. The project became a model on accessibility for four other Asian countries.
“Everyone has the right to live productively. This is a civil right. In the same way, leveling the field to accommodate people with disabilities is not a special privilege but a right,” defines Architect Silva. He invokes the rights-based dictum while actively advocating for accessibility not only for physical environment, but for transportation and communication as well. Although from the private sector, he chairs the government’s accessibility committee core group under the agency concerned on disability. 
He also chairs the Apolinario Mabini Awards handed out by the Philippine President, no less.  It is the paramount award-giving body that recognizes support to the PWD sector by individuals, groups and institutions from the non-government and private sectors. Silva himself was an awardee prior to chairmanship.
Silva has been astonished that through the years, the award has motivated the country’s biggest business institutions like supermalls to improve on their accessibility commitments. Silva leads committees in defining awards criteria and audits the establishments that have submitted entries.  
Amidst his busy schedule dabbling in his fulltime corporate job, chairmanship of government committees, and civic commitments, Silva responds happily to invitations to speak about varying topics to a myriad of audiences. He talks to a throng of mall personnel about practical ways of assisting a blind customer; he presents technical reports on updates of accessibility situations in the Philippines to international audiences; he talks about the accessibility law to business leaders.
“I once audited a mall and quickly briefed some of its personnel. When the mall representative invited me for coffee afterwards, I was astonished to learn that the one who guided my hand towards my coffee was the waiter. The representative said that my briefing was quickly learned by the mall staff. I had similar random experiences in the malls especially the ones that invite me to give talks twice every year. That is the reason why I don’t hesitate in giving simple talks because they are always opportunities to influence others to become sensitized on blindness. Service providers are part of enabling an accessible environment afterall.”
Architectural features to enhance accessibility for blind and visually-impaired
Recently, Silva had another epiphany. As more establishments are vying for the coveted awards, he realized that some that have previously won are already complacent and are not introducing improvements in their accessibility practices. As complacency seems an alien thought to Silva, he thinks that there is room for improvement beyond compliance to the accessibility criteria.
As an architect, Silva can think of a host of architectural features and facilities that will be useful for blind and low vision people which certainly go beyond law compliance. Tactile floor surfaces and tactile maps to guide the navigation of public places, audible pedestrian traffic signals, digitalized recorder button in toilets that provide guidance in public toilets, Braille contraptions in elevators or hotel rooms, contrasting walls and fixtures to help the low vision and a telephone ‘pimple’ in the dial for easier use by a blind and visually impaired. His list of suggestions easily spill over one page.   
“I have started to discuss with officials of a Philippine airport terminal for the possibility of installing tactile flooring to assist blind people. I’ve experienced it in airports in other countries, and it would be good if we can start doing that here too,” optimistically shares Silva.
With a prolific mind and hands as his, it is not surprising that the blind architect reaps awards and recognitions. Aside from his award for PWD advocacy, he was also awarded the 2011 Professional Regulations Commission’s Outstanding Professional of the year in the Field of Architecture, and he is also an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) architect.
Amidst all that he had reaped and sown to define his own self as a person living with blindness, Silva provides a simplistic, yet all-encompassing reason for his advocacy on accessibility.
“I’ve really been blessed in my life with support from my wife, my family. And so I just want to give back to society through my advocacy on accessibility. I want to contribute in leveling the playing field for people with disability. I want them to be able to work and be productive members of society.”


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