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Acting public defender to seek changes to Disabilities Bill through the courts

BY BALFORD HENRY Senior staff reporter balfordh@jamaicaobserver.com

Wednesday, September 03, 2014    

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ACTING Public Defender Matondo Mukulu says that his office is seeking a meeting with Senate President Floyd Morris to discuss proposals to improve the Disabilities Bill.

One proposal the Office of the Public Defender (OPB) has been pursuing is to raise the income tax threshold for parents of disabled children to increase the disposable income available to single working parents of children with disabilities.

Mukulu, whose office has been hosting a number of public consultations on the Bill across Jamaica, told the Jamaica Observer's Monday Exchange this week that one of its findings is that parents of children with disabilities spend a large portion of their disposable income in caring for their children.

"One mother told me that she spends $28,000 per week just for cab fares, and she has a car. So, the primary purpose of the meeting was to get that type of information to see how, from our perspective, we can influence policy so that they can in turn benefit," he stated.

"And what we are looking at is getting a special tax threshold for persons who are employed and who have children who are living with a disability. Because we think that, for example, two or three thousand dollars extra per month might not sound like a lot in today's economy but, I tell you something, it

can make a difference between a cab fare, when the parent is at work and needs someone to collect the child," he added.

He said that the OPD had made some recommendations in relation to the Disabilities Bill, but while some of them have not been taken on board, the office is not of the view that "we should just drop our hands and chomp at the bits".

"There are other things that we can do to assist," he remarked.

He said that the OPD will be meeting with Senator Morris, who is blind, to put forward its ideas to him, to cost them and also to help him through the legal terrain.

The Disabilities Bill, which was passed in the House of Representatives on July 22, is currently in the Senate and is expected to be debated as soon as Parliament resumes sittings after the summer break.

Mukulu said that his office is of the opinion that there are several weaknesses in the Bill, but believes that it can be improved through regular reviews of the provisions, as well as legal decisions through the courts.

He said that from his

own professional experience working with discrimination, nothing happens overnight.

"What is missing, and this is where our office must get a grip on it, is taking up the cases and showing the weaknesses. What wasn't happening before this year was that we weren't really capturing the cases which involve disabled persons. One of the things that we have been saying amongst ourselves, is that this is a new terrain, a new frontier that we have to take on," he explained.

He said that the changes the OPD would like to see are not coming through the Parliament and, therefore, will have to be sought through case law, when it interfaces with public bodies, to show where there are gaps and how they stand to pay out more if they don't correct those gaps.

"We are not fully content with the Bill, but we have decided that the alternative approach is continuously working with persons in the disabled society, picking up their cases and pushing their cases through the courts," Mukulu said. However, he said that the OPD was being careful in ensuring that the situation does not arise, where once the ideas are implemented other groups start demanding the same concessions.

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