Life and love in the time of polio

George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Oct 17 2019 01:07 PM | Updated as of Oct 17 2019 01:43 PM

Despite several operations evidenced by the stitches on her hand, Rhodora “Joy” Zaragoza-Ness, a victim of polio in her younger years, continues to adapt with her condition. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Who's afraid of polio? Not these two survivors.

“Wala akong memory ng magandang pangyayari na naglalakad ako. Kaya wala akong regret na naramdaman kasi wala akong natatandaang panahon na nag-enjoy din ako sa paglalakad.”

At 8 months old, Cris Paner was diagnosed with polio. His family cannot trace if it was the water he drank or the food he ate that was contaminated. No one knew exactly where the virus that would affect his life forever came from. 

As a kid, Cris crawled his way to school in Olongapo City where they lived. Both his parents worked on a small business non-stop and couldn’t help Cris in his everyday chores. Being a cripple at that age was not easy for any child. As early as 7 years old, Cris had already accepted his fate.

In school, he was called many names, but the one that stuck to him was when he was called “palaka,” due to his legs being crooked. This affected him in many different ways. 

“Physically, mahirap, emotionally rin may epekto siya. Parang nakikita ko na kakaiba ako, kumpara sa maraming kabataan. Marami akong mga hindi kayang gawin. Mentally, dahil dun sa sitwasyon na yun, napuwersa ako na magsumikap sa pagaaral. Yun na kasi ang huling baraha ko. This is my only saving grace."

Professor Cris Paner shows pictures of his younger years in crutches while attending school. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Cris was determined to use education to get on top. When Cris was accepting an honor award after his first grade, an opportunity came knocking. A stranger asked if he wanted to study in Manila, and he took it. 

He went on to study at the Philippine Orthopedic Hospital School for Crippled Children, making it to the top of his class all the way up to high school. 

While studying, he developed an early interest in the Sciences and dreamt of becoming a medical doctor. “Bilang may kapansanan, gusto ko magkaroon ng chance na makagamot ng mga taong katulad ko, mga may sakit”. He constantly joined quiz bees because they had monetary prizes. He knew what he lacked physically, but he also knew what he possessed--a great mind. And he utilized it.

In the 80s, he was again offered a scholarship by a benefactor to go to college. Lourdes Reyes, who was teaching him piano lessons in “Bahay Mapagmahal”, a home for physically handicapped children inside the Orthopedic Center compound, paved the way for Cris to take up BS Biochemistry at the University of Sto. Tomas. After graduating in 1991, he had his first job at the Tahanang Walang Hagdanan as a researcher in the food production department.


Joy demonstrates her typing skills, which she has learned to use for her job despite her condition. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

The average person using the standard “qwerty” keyboard types between 38 and 40 words per minute (wpm). Professional typists, however, are a lot faster at 65 to 75 wpm. To type with one hand at 40 wpm is a different story.

Utilizing 80% of the keyboard with just her left hand is one of the things that 44-year-old Rhodora “Joy” Zaragoza-Ness takes pride in. When she was 1-year old in 1975, Joy acquired polio from a cousin she was sharing a crib with. 

“Yung kaliwa ko, 'yan ang pang-letters ko. 40 words per minute yan. Etong kanan ko, sa numpad (number pad) 'yan. 'Pag dalawang kamay pa 'to, paano pa kaya?”

It was a question that nagged her growing up. In her formative years, Joy experienced a lot of bullying and was called different names by her peers--pingkaw, lumpo, pilay. Joy recalls that she even overheard parents of her classmates saying “Baka mahawa yung anak namin d'yan.” Her appearance to others made her become timid.

A young Joy pours her energy into studying because of the difficulty in having a social life. Photo courtesy of Rhodora Zaragosa-Ness

“Naging mahiyain ako noon dahil sa bullying. Hindi daw normal itsura ko. So nag-focus nalang ako sa pag-aaral”.

After graduating, finding jobs wasn't that easy for Joy.

In 1997, Joy applied for a human resource position at one of the most popular malls in the Philippines. She admitted that she didn’t declare that she was a polio survivor, but recalls that she passed all the tests. Her application results showed that she had very strong interpersonal skills and was very fit for the job. Only after discovering she had polio was she rejected for the job. The same thing happened when she applied for one of the biggest Filipino fast-food chains.

“Di raw pwede ang PWD.” 

No hindrance

In this undated picture, Joy is seen getting an award for a badminton event. Photo courtesy of Rhodora Zaragosa-Ness

Instead of sulking, Joy used her disability as motivation rather than as hindrance. “Kailangan mag-tapos ako kasi walang mangyayari sa buhay ko. Meron ka na ngang disability, 'di ka pa magpe-perform? Hindi kasi dapat nagiging hindrance yun.”

So, in spite of her experiences in bullying, Joy went about her schooling normally. She joined clubs, became a girl scout, joined badminton teams, and even the cheering squad. 

In 1998, Joy was hired by the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry as an administrative assistant and worked there from 1998-2000. Together with her husband Neil, she also set up a small computer shop that lasted for 7 years. 

In 2011, Joy entered the world of BPO. “Sa BPO kasi, walang discrimination or bullying. Mas tanggap ka dun. Mas open-minded sila.” 


Cris lectures in a classroom at the University of Santo Tomas on October 14, 2019. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Cris went on to work as a chemist for other companies after Tahanang Walang Hagdanan, but they were always short-lived. He would find that jealous officemates would use his disability as a reason to cite whenever he was getting in the good graces of the bosses.

That was about the time he decided he would enter the teaching profession. Cris taught in Malabon Community College, St. Paul University QC, Unciano College, Caloocan Polytechnic College, and finally at the University of Sto Tomas in 1995. He took a Professional Teaching Certification Program, major in Biological Science, at the Caloocan City Polytechnic College and was the topnotcher in 1998.

In 2004, Cris was granted a scholarship to study “Restoration and Conservation of Artworks Attacked by Biological Agents” at the Istituto Superiore per la Conservazione ed il Restauro (formerly Istituto Centrale di Restauro), one of the notable and prestigious institutes in the field of art restoration in Rome, Italy.

He did this while taking his masteral in Microbiology, which he finished in 2009.

Now, he teaches at the Department of Medical Technology at the Faculty of Pharmacy in UST. He sidelines as a board exam tutor, thesis editor, and accepts clients for artwork cleaning and restoration chemicals he developed on his own. 

Why discriminate?

Cris interacts with fellow professors inside the faculty room of the College of Pharmacy in UST. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

The question that Cris and Joy constantly ask is, why discriminate based on physical appearances.

“Pinaghalong, una walang tiwala sa mga may kapansanan. Pangalawa, iba kasi personality ko e. Somehow they look at me as a threat to some people e, kapag nasasapawan ko sila. Di ako tahimik na individual or employee. Pag may nakita ako, kino-correct ko. At saka I always fight for my rights,” Cris explained. 

“They have a wrong notion about handicapped people. Pag nakita ka nila physically, madali ka nilang husgahan na di mo magagawa yung trabaho mo compared to normal people. Parang kulang sila sa sensitivity sa handicapped," Cris lamented further.

“Imbis na maging hindrance, dapat maging inspiration sa iba. Na kung kaya niya, kaya mo rin. Huwag ka mag-rely sa ibang tao,” Joy added.

Polio re-emerges

Marikina residents have their children vaccinated in a program of the city government on September 23, 2019 amid the reemergence of polio in the country after almost 2 decades being declared polio-free. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

On September 19, 2019, the Department of Health (DOH) confirmed the re-emergence of polio in the Philippines, 19 years after the country was declared polio-free by the World Health Organization (WHO). A 3-year-old girl from Lanao del Sur was the first case to be confirmed, while the virus was also detected in water sewage samples in Manila and Davao. The Philippines had been polio-free since October 2000. 

DOH Secretary Francisco Duque III stated that there has been a decline in oral polio vaccine (OPV) coverage in the past years. One of the factors for the decline was the vaccine scare linked to the Dengvaxia controversy, wherein the vaccine was blamed for some deaths of children. Other reasons that have been cited are parents' complacency and difficulties in getting the vaccine. 

Rhodora “Joy” Zaragoza-Ness prepares at her house in Pasay City on October 4, 2019 before going to work as a Technical Support Representative at a telco in Taguig City. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Joy enters the building of her office in Taguig City where, she says, the BPO she works with is open-minded about hiring people with disabilities. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Joy enjoys some quiet time with her husband, Neil, at their house in Pasay City. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Joy spends as much time away from work with husband Neil. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Despite her condition, Joy shares that her daily life is no different from other people. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Joy does cooking chores in their house in Pasay City. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Part of Joy's acceptance is learning how to adapt to daily chores and activities with her condition. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Joy gets to play with “Bunsoy,” one of their many cats inside their house in Pasay City. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Professor Cris Paner hops on an ATV on October 10, 2019 in Cavite, where he drives to his work at the University of Santo Tomas (UST) in Manila every day. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Cris makes his way to his next class at the main building of UST where he teaches. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Cris faces a small challenge in the classroom with the help of his students. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

One of Cris' students consults with him outside the UST main building. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Cris discusses with his students at the UST Central Laboratory. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Cris has lunch together with fellow professors from the College of Science at the UST. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

It's off to another class for Cris at UST where he teaches an average of three classes a day. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Back home together with his wife and two kids, Cris inspects a newly bought motorcycle attached to a sidecar adapted for people with special needs. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Cris enjoys a light moment with his family inside their home in Bacoor, Cavite. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News