Parliament taking steps to better accommodate disabled members

BY ALICIA DUNKLEY Senior staff reporter dunkleya@jamaicaobserver.com

Thursday, January 19, 2012

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THE Houses of Parliament is pledging to at least have the Oath of Allegiance written in Braille to accommodate visually impaired community persons.


This, after Government Senator Floyd Emerson Morris — who made history in 1998 when he was the first blind person to be appointed to the Upper House — had to be assisted with the words of the oath when he was being sworn in for the second time on Tuesday.


The Oath of Allegiance had to be read to the senator by Clerk to the Houses of Parliament Heather Cooke.


Yesterday, Deputy Clerk to the Houses of Parliament Cheryl Gibson acknowledged that the Parliament does not have a Braille 'n' Speak machine.


"We took note of what happened and decided that we need to have it the next time around, so definitely we will have the oath done in Braille. The Braille 'n' Speak is something we can contemplate for the future," Gibson told the Observer.


"We didn't get the list of senators until the day before the swearing-in (Monday) but barring that, there should have been something in place. For the next swearing-in, definitely we will have systems in place to facilitate any form of disability," the deputy clerk said.


Senator Morris, who had also served as junior minister in the labour and social security ministry, was first appointed to the Senate on the advice of then prime minister, PJ Patterson.


He used those platforms to advocate for the youth and the disabled and was instrumental in the implementation of the Programme for Advancement Through Health and Education (PATH), as well as the development of legislation for the disabled persons and the elderly.


Equipping the Parliament building to accommodate members of the disabled community has been a long-standing issue.


Parliamentarians were embarrassed in March last year when a parliamentary committee meeting had to be moved from the main chamber of Gordon House to the Jamaica Manufacturers' Association building next door because specially invited guest, nutritionist Dr Heather Little-White — who is wheelchair bound — could not access the second-floor meeting room.


A National Disabilities Act, which has been in gestation for more than six years, did not see the light of day under the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) administration, despite promises that it would be brought to Parliament last month for passage this March.


The legislation, which aims to protect the rights of the disabled community, has been in the works since the tabling of a national policy for persons with disabilities in 2000 when the now People's National Party (PNP) administration had formed the Government. That policy was debated in the Senate in January 2001, and in the House of Representatives in November 2005. In 2006, drafting instructions were issued to the Office of the Chief Parliamentary Council.


In responding to questions last May, then labour and social security minister under the JLP government, Pearnel Charles, said that the ministry has since received 10 drafts, the most recent being in March that year. At the time, he said the purpose of that law would be "to promote, protect and facilitate the full and equal employment of all fundamental rights and freedoms for persons with disabilities in the areas of education and training, employment, political office and public life, health care, housing and public transportation".


At the time, the PNP's Ronald Thwaites, member of Parliament for Central Kingston, suggested that a ramp be constructed to allow the physically disabled access to Gordon House.


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