KINGSTON, October 1, 2013 – For 13 years the National Disability Act has been bedridden in Jamaica’s cyclic black hole of debates.
The Bill is significant to the disabled community because if enacted, it will promote, protect and facilitate the full and equal enjoyment of all fundamental rights and freedoms by persons with a disability in education, training, employment, political office, public life, health care, housing and public transportation. Additionally, the Bill will legislatively establish the Jamaica Council for Persons with Disability.
This policy which was first debated in the Senate in 2001 was then brought to the House of Representatives four years later in 2005. Following this, in 2006, drafting instructions were issued to the Office of the Chief Parliamentary Council.
Subsequent to this in 2007, Jamaica was the first to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006). The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is based on the recognition that persons with disabilities should be viewed as rights holders, entitled to the full array of human rights on an equal basis with others, instead of charity.
Also in reference to the lagging Act, the former Labor and Social Security Minister, Pearnel Charles told persons during the sitting of the House of Representatives in May 2011, that the process was being “approached carefully, seeking the full participation of members of the disabled community, as well as the numerous government ministries, agencies and departments which will, of necessity, be required to play a vital role in the implementation of the new provisions”.
This year, the current Minister, Hon. Derrick Kellier, spoke similarly in the Jamaican media saying the National Disability Act has been moving at its current pace because they “have been canvassing employers to ensure that the disabled can find jobs.” While it is admirable that the necessary consultations have taken place, which effectively reflects the motto of the international disability rights community: “Nothing about us without us”, discouragingly, three successive government administrations have spearheaded this Act with no success, casting shadows with the appearance of moving forward.
What this therefore means – 13 years since (then) Prime Minister, The Most Honorable PJ Patterson announced the Act would be introduced in Parliament – is there is no national legislation in place to ‘promote, protect and facilitate’ all the fundamental rights of the disabled in Jamaica. While the Jamaican Constitution ensures certain basic rights for all its citizens, it does not explicitly mention the disabled. Additionally, the National Policy on Disability which was passed in Parliament in 1999 also lacks the necessary legal sanctions to make it enforceable. As a result, with already limited access to only a few resources, the disabled continue to flutter and panic along the sidelines like indispensable threads of the country’s socio-economic fabric.
Claudia Gordon, who was recently appointed as associate director in the White House Office of Public Engagement also highlighted some of the hardships and discrimination she encountered while growing up as a hearing-impaired child in Jamaica. In a 2010 “Meet the Women of the Administration” series from the White House blog, Gordon, the then Special Assistant to the Director of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), said, “When I suddenly lost my ability to hear at the age of eight, I was taken out of school and kept at home to perform chores. Friends slowly disappeared and what was usually a cheerful hello was replaced by an awkward smile, curious stares and even outright ridicule. There were also those long road trips on the bumpy Jamaican roads to distant towns where healers would perform rituals in attempts to cure me.”
She continued, “I thought I was the only deaf person in the world. I did not realize until years later that a woman who everyone in my town knew as “dummy,” and who children my age would incessantly harass with stone throwing, was deaf. Looking back, I wish I knew her real name. What I do know is that the life of this woman – ostracized as “dummy” – almost became my own but for my mother’s triumph in successfully bringing me to America by the time I was eleven years old.”
Since Gordon’s early days in Jamaica not much has changed and the ebb and flow of limited opportunities is something most of the 160,000 disabled persons in the country know only too well about. Many still bob below the country’s poverty line not because of their inability to work, but because they are not being given the chance to work – something the National Disability Act would address.
Meanwhile on the global stage many have been forging ahead with a post-2015 agenda. The United Nations in collaboration with various nongovernmental organizations, (NGOs), recently released the publication, “Towards an Inclusive and Accessible Future for All” which was published for the United Nations Partnership to Promote the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNPRPD). The publication which “documents the voices of persons with disabilities on what a disability-inclusive post-2015 framework should look like, and contains practical suggestions on how to achieve this objective”, also rightfully highlighted that “compared to non-disabled people, persons with disabilities experience less legal protection, higher rates of poverty, lower educational achievements, poorer health outcomes and less political and cultural participation…”
Without the removal of these barriers which prevent persons with disabilities from contributing to the socio-economic development of their countries – in this case, Jamaica – then the government’s dedication to resource allocation for the disabled and the fostering and safeguarding of their human rights certainly becomes questionable. Each successive government’s attitude towards the unimplemented 13-year-old strategy, which would inevitably protect the rights of marginalized citizens, is, not only pitiable – it is also flippant and offensive.
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