Disability, progressive policy and development


Saturday, October 30, 2010

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The issue of development has boggled the minds of scholars and policymakers for centuries. Various scholars have articulated their views as to what this concept entails, but the one that has appealed to me the most is the views expressed by my mentor and lecturer at the University of the West Indies, Professor Aggrey Brown.

Professor Brown in his expressions on development explicitly stated that development is about people and people must be at the centre of whatsoever activity that is taking place. I take careful note of the general use of the term "people" as this is a broad, inclusive and non-discriminatory term. It is important to me because it captures individuals with disabilities.

The issue of disability is one that is receiving tremendous focus across the globe currently. This has come about due to the establishment of the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The convention was established in 2006 and to date been signed and ratified by some 90 countries, of which Jamaica was the first to sign and ratify. Jamaica's signing and ratifying of this convention in 2007 was a signal to the world and community of people with disabilities, that it is extremely committed to the development of these vulnerable individuals.

Three years after the coming into force of this convention, I have had the distinct pleasure of representing the University of the West Indies through the Centre for Disability Studies, at the Third Session of Conference of State Parties at the United Nations in New York. At this session, I recognised a number of things that could not escape the eyes of the blind.

It was quite obvious from the meeting that countries that were regarded as "progressive" were busy moving towards implementing the tenets of the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Brazil, for example, has been busy making efforts to improve the education system for children with disabilities. They are busy implementing a system of education that is inclusive, and as such, is ensuring that schools are made accessible to children with disabilities. Brazil is also tackling the problem of employment of people with disabilities. They are currently embarking on preparation for World Cup Football 2014 and will be creating over 150,000 jobs for this event. They have adopted regulations which will see 10 per cent of those to be employed, being individuals with a disability.

Across the motherland, in South Africa, they are busy making their society more accessible for persons with disabilities. Their education system is undergoing major efforts to ensure that more children with disabilities get a quality education. They have introduced an "affirmative action" initiative which is seeing people with disabilities being employed in various businesses in their country. It was a joy to see and hear of the accessible stadiums in the last World Cup Football where persons with disabilities were able to enjoy the wonderful game of football just as anyone else.

My disappointment is that in the Caribbean, we have not caught a good fever that is emerging globally. The development fever which is emerging towards people with disabilities must be caught and I presume that as soon as the USA ratifies the convention later this year, the energy will be transferred to us in the region.

But this should not be the case. We should not have to wait for others to do what is right. Jamaica was the first country in the world to sign and ratify the Convention and we need to put in place the infrastructure which will improve the quality of life for persons with disabilities. Schools must be made accessible for children with disabilities, for example, more ramps and accessible bathroom facilities must be built for the physically disabled. Hospitals must be made more accessible for people with disabilities, for example, more trained professionals to deal with the deaf. Buses must be made accessible for the disabled, for example, hydraulic lifts for users of wheelchairs. The justice system must be made more accessible for people with disabilities through training staff how to relate to this vulnerable group and the provision of ramps at the courthouses, and we must move to create more jobs for these vulnerable individuals.

We have made some progress in Jamaica. Our major airports are fully accessible to the disabled. Some of our sporting facilities, such as the National Stadium and Sabina Park are accessible to the disabled. We have a national policy for the disabled. We have removed regulations impeding the deaf to drive on Jamaican roads. We are currently working on national legislation to protect the rights of the disabled. However, we have a lot of work to be done both in Jamaica and the Caribbean. We as a country and region cannot truly make any claims to development until we incorporate the disabled in the full scheme of economic and social life. We cannot continue on that regressive trajectory where we exclude over 250,000 of our citizens from the developmental process.

The UWI Centre for Disability Studies, as a response to the developmental agenda for people with disabilities, has developed a Global Disability Index which is designed to measure and rank the progress of countries that have ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Through this mechanism, countries will be surveyed to see how they are implementing the provisions of the UN Convention. Such an index will force state parties which are signatories to this progressive international treaty, to incorporate the disabled in all areas of life within their jurisdiction. No country would want to be ranked at the lower end of the index as this would constitute bad publicity. Therefore, we will be seeing more efforts by state parties to implement the provisions of the CRPD. This is a major piece of work to be undertaken by UWI and it signals this institution's continued commitment to the improvement of the quality of life for people with disabilities.

Floyd Morris is a former senator and minister of state.


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