Unfriendly society hurting the disabled

BY ALICIA DUNKLEY Sunday Observer senior reporter dunkleya@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, October 03, 2010

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NOVEMBER 22, 2007 was a thrilling day for then 23-year-old Omar Ferguson -- it was the day he got his general driver's licence. But 12 days later, a bullet fired in a drive-by shooting met its mark, paralysing him and his dream of driving.

He is one of a community of people who, for some reason or another, lack the ability to move about on their own. And as Susan Hamilton, managing director of the Abilities Foundation -- one of the few learning institutions for the disabled in Jamaica -- tells it, their predicament is becoming progressively worse.

"It's not friendly for them outside. The blind, where do they walk? The sidewalks are ridiculous (even) for us who are not blind. It is really really bad.

"Not to mention the intellectually disabled; they don't have a physical disability, but they are abused, they are locked up and they are not understood," she tells the Sunday Observer in a recent interview.

If stories of difficulty are lacking anywhere else, they abound at the Foundation.

"I have a student who is blind. He is from Manchester. He was going to the (Salvation Army) School for the Blind but because he is 18 he can't go there anymore and he can't find any place to live so he can't come here. He is probably not very independent. We found somewhere for him in Portmore but it would take him a while to acclimatise. Being disabled in Jamaica is very expensive," Hamilton points out.

"We have students who want to come to school but because of their financial situation and lack of public transportation they cannot. One student has rheumatoid arthritis. She is in a wheel chair and lives in Gordon Town but none of the special buses go to that area. Her mother has to charter a taxi from Gordon Town to Half-Way-Tree where she can get the bus," she says.

And on it goes. Disabled students cannot attend school as a result of enormous transportation costs and the discomfort of travelling in vehicles designed for the able-bodied.

"It is really depressing because they need to come to school and we are the only one in the island. What about those in Manchester and Negril? Where do they go?" Hamilton asks, noting that the levels of violence and the number of road collisions have been adding to the tally of Jamaica's physically disabled almost daily.

Still, there are others who have defied the odds and have completed courses in various disciplines at the Abilities Foundation but are unable to make a living from those skills because employers are not too keen on including the challenged into their ranks.

The National Disability Policy passed by Parliament in November 1999 provides guidelines for co-operation between government and civil society in addressing the equalisation of opportunities for persons with disabilities. It is, however, not enforceable as it lacks legal sanctions, a fact which Hamilton bemoans.

The National Disability Act, which was initially scheduled for completion during the 2003 legislative year and which should act as the companion piece to the policy is in its ninth draft.

"I called an establishment trying to place some housekeeping students in work experience recently and I really had to sell each one because the moment you say "Abilities" there is that stigma to deal with. Because the legislation is not in place, employers are not bound by the law (to employ them). They need to pass the legislation because it affects everything," she points out.

"...These people have rights and they don't even know. Because they have been so trampled on and made to feel like they are second-class citizens, they hide away in their houses and we don't hear their voices. They want to come to school and they can't get transportation so what do they do? They just stay home, they get depressed," Hamilton says further.

"I really get tired when I hear about the 'Dudus' and the political warmongering. I get tired of it because there is business at hand to be done and people are calling the (talk-show) programmes everyday to complain about the economy and political parties, I don't understand. You have people in your line of sight who are suffering and everybody is going on about their business," she laments.

And while public passenger buses carry specially marked seats for members of the disabled community, Hamilton is displeased with the fact that only about three buses exclusively serve the disabled in Kingston and St Andrew and Portmore.

"One goes to Portmore and picks up all the children in Portmore, lets them off in Half-Way-Tree then they all gather in the bus that goes to the School of Hope in Papine and then Constant Spring. So it does a round-the-world thing, which is ridiculous, and when that bus breaks down they can't come to school," Hamilton tells the Sunday Observer.

Noting that Jamaica was the first country in the world to ratify the 2007 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Hamilton believes there is more talk than action.

The Statistical Institute of Jamaica in a 1991 census counted 111,000 disabled, which at the time represented just about 4.7 per cent of the population. Of that number, only 13,951 or 13 per cent were employed.

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