THE CASE FOR THE ENACTMENT OF DISABILITIES LEGISLATION
The existing legislative regime in Barbados does not make adequate provision for the socio-economic welfare of those persons with disabilities in our society. There is presently an overwhelming need for our Parliament to enact legislation seeking to advance their rights and status and to reduce the existing discriminatory practices against them.
The Owen Arthur government sought to address the inherent discrimination which exists in Barbados against the approximately 14,000 persons with disabilities by laying in Parliament for debate a Green Paper on the issue in May, 2000 and then a White Paper two years afterwards. Mr. Arthur’s administration also gave tangible financial support to advancing the cause of persons with disabilities by establishing a National Disabilities Unit in 1997 and by providing funds to assist in the construction and management of Harambee House, where the administrative affairs pertaining to disability issues are facilitated. Additionally, a National Committee was formed in 2006 to advise Government on issues relative to the advancement of rights of persons with disabilities.
Both the present and the last political administration have symbolically attempted to promote respect for and to address the rights of persons with disabilities by each appointing a visually impaired eloquent person to the unelected chamber of our Parliament.
Serious consideration however ought to be given to amend the Constitution of Barbados to include prohibition of discriminatory practices against and of unequal legal protection of persons with disabilities as one of its entrenched human rights clauses, just as discrimination on the grounds of race, place of origin, political opinions, colour or creed are therein included. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms passed in Canada in 1982 is an example where such a constitutional amendment has been effected.
Furthermore, a comprehensive Disabilities Act ought to be passed by our Parliament addressing issues relating, interalia, to the education and vocational training, social security and employment opportunities of persons with disabilities. Under our Education Act as presently constructed, Barbadian children with disabilities do not have a right to free primary and secondary education as every other Barbadian child has. It is merely within the discretion of the Education Minister to provide a public education for disabled children, many of whom instead attend private special needs institutions where they have to pay for their education.
More of these children ought as far as possible to be integrated in the regular school system with adequate and appropriate technical and physical infrastructure. Furthermore, it ought to be mandatory for the Education Minister to provide vocational training for disabled secondary school leavers who require the same. Legislation also needs to be enacted to create a special regime for persons with disabilities to access student funds to pursue post-secondary school education.
A society is judged to a large extent by the manner in which it treats its most vulnerable categories of persons. While we justifiably can boast about being the leading developing country in the world in terms of the human development index, we cannot be proud of the fact that over ninety per cent of adult persons with disabilities in Barbados are not gainfully employed or are not pursuing higher education. There is strong evidence to support the perception among persons with disabilities which are not of the mind that they are not afforded fair opportunity for employment, either in the public or private sector, commensurate with their mental or intellectual ability. Indeed, Government is even more blameworthy in this respect than is the private sector. This is the case even though available evidence indicates that persons with disabilities are in many respects more productive and committed employees than are their able-bodied counterparts.
Affirmative legislative action therefore needs to be enacted in our country forcing government institutions and statutory corporations to employ suitably trained and capable persons with disabilities in positions for which they are qualified.
Additionally, the regime of concessions needs to be expanded to provide revenue incentives to business enterprises in the private sector to employ persons with disabilities. Furthermore, funds need to be utilized and technical expertise offered by the State to facilitate the establishment of cottage industries by persons with physical disabilities so that they can employ themselves to a much greater extent than is the present position.
Although the State does provide social security and income maintenance schemes for persons with disabilities, such provision is inadequate for them to maintain a viable existence in this age of ever increasing cost of living. The main beneficiaries under the existing legislation are those who were at some stage employed and were contributing to the national insurance scheme but who were subsequently rendered disabled and incapable of working.
There are many discrepancies on this issue which need to be legislatively addressed in order to realistically cater to the reasonable needs of persons with disabilities. For example, a person who is deaf without speech receives a social security benefit while a person who is deaf with speech does not. A person with a disability will in many instances lose all of their disability benefits as soon as they became employed, no matter how meagre the salary is or how under-employed they are. Furthermore, where persons with disabilities lose their new jobs, it is difficult for them to reclaim the social security benefit.
There is the need to legislatively provide for disability benefits to be paid from the birth of children with disabilities, where their parents or guardians are under severe economic pressure to financially maintain them. Additionally, persons with mental and intellectual disabilities ought to receive the same consideration for social security benefits as do persons with other types of disabilities.
In addition to these socio-economic issues, Parliament needs to legislatively address challenges relating to the housing of the disabled (the Green Paper speaks to ten per cent of new government housing units being allocated to persons with disabilities), their public transportation and their access to the built physical environment.
Furthermore, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which entered into force on 3rd May this year and to which Barbados is a signatory, needs to be enacted into our local legislation, perhaps as a Schedule to the proposed Disabilities Act.
The various laws proposed in this article require that proper enforcement provisions should be included stipulating remedies to be implemented and penalties to be imposed for breaches of these recommended laws, after a reasonable time period for compliance with the provisions has passed. The advancement of basic human rights of the approximately five per cent of our population comprising disabled persons is fundamental if we are to achieve our goal to become the smallest developed country within the next two decades.
Edmund G. Hinkson