Sat | Nov 18, 2017

Editorial | Insensitive and offensive, Mrs Johnson Smith

Published:Tuesday | November 14, 2017 | 12:00 AM

The Government, through its council for persons with disabilities, as has been reported and commented on by this newspaper, last week launched a campaign to sensitise Jamaicans about law aimed at eliminating discrimination and stigma against people with disabilities.

The intervention is timely. For there is much work to be done, including among people, some near the apex of power, who would claim they neither discriminate against nor stigmatise disabled persons, as was demonstrated last week by Kamina Johnson Smith, the foreign affairs minister and leader of government business in the Senate.

Among the champions of the Disabilities Act was Floyd Morris, who was president of the Senate when the law was approved three years ago. Senator Morris is blind. He was a prominent and feted guest at the campaign's launch.

It is ironic, and in some ways fortuitous, that Floyd Morris was, a day later, in the legislative chamber where it was approved, victim of some of the same attitudes and behaviours that the campaign hopes to reverse.

As a blind person, Mr Morris not only reads Braille, but also uses computer technology to assist in his work, including systems that convert printed words to voice. His special need, however, impacts little on his efficiency, and it is not often that he asks for any special accommodation.

Last week in the Senate, in the debate of the controversial bill to establish a national identification system, was a rare occasion when Mr Morris' blindness impinged, in a small way, on his work. Before last Friday's sitting of the upper chamber, 23 pages of amendments were circulated to senators. On the morning of the sitting, before the start of the session, many more amendments were circulated. Amendments to the amendments, Mr Morris called them.

According to Mr Morris, he needed time to digest the latest amendments and wouldn't be in a position to "compare and contest" the various changes on the bill. He appealed for an adjournment to the debate. Other sighted opposition members, it would later emerge, were of the same position.

Mrs Johnson Smith heard the "concerns of Senator Morris", but, given the time constraints for the passage of the bill, the government side was determined to proceed. In the event, she explained, the latest amendments were set out in a simple format, and had she been allowed to proceed, it was the intention to map amended sections of bill against the current changes. "And they are not complicated."

Then came the clincher: "And Senator Morris, having recently completed your PhD and having also written your autobiography, I hesitate to think that it would to be too much to ask for us to work through ... ."

 

Hail of protests

 

Against a hail of protest from Mr Morris and other opposition members, Mrs Johnson Smith offered "apologies if this is found to have been" offensive. "I withdraw if any offence was caused," she added.

While Mrs Johnson Smith's withdrawal should be graciously accepted, the fact that she apologised and spoke in soft dulcet tones doesn't give her an easy pass. She was rude and insensitive. But worse, many people will see in her action a subliminal condescension for the academic and other achievements. If a blind man can supposedly gain a PhD and write memoirs, why can't he follow a few simple amendments?

Unintended or otherwise, there were in her behaviour echoes of the broader Jamaican society's conflation of the absence of sight or some other disability with a lessening of intellect, which is why, as Shahine Robinson, the labour and social security minister, observed at the launch of the campaign, the economy misses out on the potential contribution of a good chunk of the country's 400,000 disabled people.

Minister Robinson, as part of campaign, should provide sensitivity training to her Cabinet colleagues, and Mr Holness should make it mandatory.