Disabilities Bill: Better (10 years) late than never

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

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Tuesday's passing in Parliament of the much-awaited Disabilities Bill was marred, ironically, by the inability of several disabled persons to get access to Gordon House to be present on the historic moment.

The lack of a ramp at the seat of government is obviously shameful and sends a bad signal to the rest of the country that the disabled really don't count. We expect that this sad state of affair will be corrected in short order.

Still, we won't let that incident overshadow the monumental significance of the passage of the legislation in the House of Representatives, even if it comes just over 10 years after it was first promised by then Prime Minister P J Patterson. We have no doubt that Mr Patterson meant well, but the wheels of legislation turn excruciatingly slow.

The Bill is likely to be passed with little if any delay in the Senate, because it generally enjoys bi-partisan support among parliamentarians who all know and must regret that it took so long to come to fruition. The real work will then begin, because it is going to test the mettle of this nation as to how we treat our disabled, especially at a time when financial resources are scarce.

Critically, the Disabilities Act will reinforce and promote recognition and acceptance within Jamaica of the principle that a person with a disability has the same fundamental rights as any other person in Jamaica.

"It (also) promotes individual dignity and individual autonomy, including the freedom of choice and independence of a person within a disability," according to portfolio minister, Mr Derrick Kellier of the Ministry of Labour and Social Security.

For sure, the Bill's objectives are lofty. It calls for full and effective participation and inclusion in the society of persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others; preventing or prohibiting discrimination against a person with a disability, and promoting respect for differences and acceptance of persons with disabilities as part of human diversity and humanity. The law also facilitates the establishment of the Jamaica Council for Persons with Disabilities, as well as the Disabilities Rights Tribunal.

One of the big tests to come is in how employers accept the provision that they must not discriminate against a person with a disability.

According to Minister Kellier: "There are numerous qualified persons with a disability who have surmounted tremendous odds to obtain their qualifications, and it is unconscionable to discriminate against these persons purely on the basis of their disability."

Public Service Minister Horace Dalley puts it more succinctly: "The country has now come to accept that within our society (persons with disabilities) are intellectuals, they are technically competent, and they are persons who contribute every day to the development of the society in many spheres."

Another challenging aspect of the Bill is Clause 37, which says that any public or commercial premises being constructed must be readily accessible to, and usable by a person with a disability; must be built in accordance with the National Building Code, and is to be designed in such a way as to make the common areas accessible to a person with a disability. The struggle to achieve this has been long and and mostly fruitless. We salute those who form the exception.




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