Jamaica needs to step up its inclusion of persons with disabilities in 2022

Yesterday (December 3) was the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, and I am glad my friend and blogger Wayne Campbell wrote about it. You can find his post here. It took Jamaica seven years to bring the Disabilities Act into force after it was passed by Parliament in 2014; this will finally happen in February, 2022.

“I urge all countries to fully implement the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, increase accessibility, and dismantle legal, social, economic and other barriers with the active involvement of persons with disabilities and their representative organizations.”

António Guterres, Secretary-General, United Nations

One- eighth of the world’s population lives with a disability. The inclusion of persons with disabilities is vital for the sustainable development of the planet. The International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD) is a United Nations (UN) day that is celebrated every year on 3 December. The 2021 theme is ‘Fighting for rights in the post-COVID era.’ This year, the international community is celebrating the challenges, barriers and opportunities for people who live with disabilities, in the context of a global pandemic.

Since March 2020, every person on earth has been impacted by drastic political, social and economic changes as a result of domestic and international responses to COVID-19. Undoubtedly, our lives have been upended as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, International Day of People with Disabilities should be used to recognize that people who live with disabilities are among the most affected populations amid the COVID pandemic.

A classroom in the Kamurasi Demonstration School in Masindi Municipality, Uganda, with the Ugandan Sign language alphabet draw on the wall. (Photo: UNICEF/Uganda/Barbeyrac)

The World Health Organization (WHO) states where marginalization, discrimination, vulnerability and exploitation are everyday factors for many people but the increased risk of poor outcomes have been magnified with the reduced access to routine health care and rehabilitation services, more pronounced social isolation, poorly tailored public health messaging, inadequately constructed mental health services, and a lack of emergency preparedness for people with special needs. The day is about promoting the rights and well-being of persons with disabilities at every level of society and development, and to raise awareness of the situation of persons with disabilities in all aspects of political, social, economic, and cultural life. The WHO joins the UN in observing this day each year, reinforcing the importance of securing the rights of people with disabilities, so they can participate fully, equally and effectively in society with others, and face no barriers in all aspects of their lives. 

Safeguarding the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Latin America and the Caribbean:  The World Bank states there are approximately 85 million people living with a disability in Latin America and the Caribbean. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declares there are over 1 million persons living with some form of disability in the Caribbean. Across the Caribbean, persons with disabilities face discrimination and exclusion. According to the United Nations the term persons with disabilities is inclusive of long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which, in interaction with various attitudinal and environmental barriers, hinder full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others. Social exclusion is caused by underlying systemic barriers that limit the meaningful participation of persons with disabilities in social, economic and political life.

Persons with disabilities have lower outcomes in education, employment and health compared to other population groups. For example, only 10 per cent of persons with disabilities in the Caribbean are employed. This leads to persons with disabilities more likely to live in poverty and experience higher rates of violence. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic further compounded this situation, deepening the challenges faced by persons with disabilities. UNESCO works to dismantle negative stereotypes, eliminate barriers, and construct an inclusive environment grounded on human rights so that everyone can fully participate as equal members of society. In many countries members of the disabled community continue to experience discrimination and stigma.

A seven-year old’s joy at receiving a wheelchair. (Photo: Nicholas Fruh/Humanity and Inclusion US)

We often believe that behavioral change cannot be legislated; however this is so far from the truth. In March 2007, Jamaica became the first country to affix its signature to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In 2014, Jamaica passed the Disabilities Act. The Disabilities Act is to come into effect on February 14, 2022. The disabled community in Jamaica is estimated to be between 15 per cent and 20 per cent of the population… They continue to face challenges, especially in rural Jamaica…It is especially distressing for parents of disabled students, who find it extremely challenging to find schools which are equipped with the necessary expertise and access to cater to the needs of those students. Unfortunately, only a handful of parents are able to afford private education for these children.

A few years ago, a wheelchair-bound student was unable to attend the school of his choice because the institution did not have ramps to facilitate him. The Ministry of Education, Youth and Information stated Alex Fraser, who was turned away from Meadowbrook High School, would be accommodated at Jamaica College. The decision came after his mother expressed anger and disappointment that she was unable to register Alex at his school of choice from the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT) because the school indicated that it does not have the facilities to accommodate a special-needs student. This story holds true of many of our public schools and indeed public institutions. This is just one of a myriad of issues the disabled community faces. [Since then, Alex, who was born without legs, has gone on to inspire fellow students at an inter-school golf competition, ensuring that Jamaica College came third].

Anne Wafula-Strike is founder of the Olympia-Wafula Foundation to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. (Photo: Africa Renewal/UN)

2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: The UN declares, and rightly so, that Disability inclusion is an essential condition to upholding human rights, sustainable development, and peace and security. It is also central to the promise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to leave no one behind. The commitment to realizing the rights of persons with disabilities is not only a matter of justice; it is an investment in a common future. The global crisis of COVID-19 is deepening pre-existing inequalities, exposing the extent of exclusion and highlighting that work on disability inclusion is imperative…Even under normal circumstances, persons with disabilities are less likely to access health care, education, employment and to participate in the community. An integrated approach is required to ensure that persons with disabilities are not left behind.

Disability inclusion will result in a COVID-19 response and recovery that better serves everyone, more fully suppressing the virus, as well as building back better. It will provide for more agile systems capable of responding to complex situations, reaching the furthest behind first. How many of you recall the Israeli Minister Karine Elharrar, who could not attend the COP26 Climate Change Conference because it was not wheelchair accessible? Ms Elharrar reportedly told Israel’s media entity that she could not get onto the grounds of the conference because the only options were to either walk or take a shuttle that was not suitable for a wheelchair. 

In Pursuit of a Culture of Inclusiveness: We all have a role to play to ensure that the society embraces a culture of inclusivity. We often become self righteous in deciding on which group of marginalized individuals should be accorded human rights. It is only when we are faced with the problem – whether it’s a child or family member with a disability – when we realize that no human being should be discriminated against. We need to foster a culture which embraces more inclusivity. Is there inclusiveness in our churches regarding people with special needs? Do we provide the opportunities for people with disabilities to participate in the service? Clearly, more funding to the organizations which support and cater to the needs of the community is important [Digicel Foundation]. There needs to be more special needs public schools in all 7 Regions served by the Ministry of Education. We need to work towards making the society – and indeed the world – a safer and kinder place. We all are influencers within our own spaces. We ought not to be too busy to engage in advocacy and activism for a worthy cause.

Our lives become richer when we embrace humanity without being judgmental. In the words of Nido Qubein, your present circumstances don’t determine where you can go; they merely determine where you start.

Wayne Campbell is an educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and or gender issues. waykam@yahoo.com @WayneCamo © #IDPD2021

I attended the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica (PSOJ) webinar on the inclusion of people with disabilities in the workplace on December 1, and it left me with food for thought. Here’s what I learned from the discussion – which included Digicel Foundation CEO Charmaine Daniels – whose parent company in Jamaica is a model for workplace inclusion. The Foundation itself is the only private sector organization in Jamaica with a major focus on special needs – supporting ten special needs centres which it constructed, and this year renovating the Pear Tree River School in rural St. Thomas as a satellite of the centre in Lyssons (in rural areas, Jamaicans with disabilities are at a particular disadvantage).

Photo: Daniel Tardif/Getty Images

I was concerned to note that, according to Jamaica’s National Labour Market Survey Guide to Employment Opportunities, 68 percent of Jamaican companies did not employ anyone with a disability and 56 percent stated they had no established policies to facilitate them. Remarks made at the webinar by Dr. Hixwell Douglas, a visually impaired teacher and an eloquent advocate for disability rights, were disturbing also. He had to fight for promotion and had to prove his worth a thousand times over.

“I am a person first. Persons with disabilities are people first,” he said.

However, under the new legislation, the Jamaica Council for Persons with Disabilities (JCPD), the government agency responsible, will present a template Code of Practices for businesses to follow and will help them work on their accessibility issues. Once the Disabilities Act comes into effect, there will be a two-year window for companies to fix their buildings to make them accessible to employees and clients with disabilities. Buildings under construction should also be incorporating these features under the Universal Design concept. I do hope all of this will be properly monitored and the legislation enforced, when the time comes.

Please, everybody. Engage with – and employ – more people with disabilities! Let’s embrace diversity and inclusion in this “brave, new post-COVID world.” As Wayne says, let’s embrace humanity.

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