Editorial | Promulgate disabilities law
Kojo Dawes’ case notwithstanding, we would have expected greater certainty from the labour and social security minister, Karl Samuda, rather than the tentativeness of his statement that the Disabilities Act should come into force by next April.
There are three reasons that there should be certitude. One is that the Government promised in the Throne Speech in February that full enforcement would begin “in the coming year”. Second, it is nearly six years since the law was passed in 2014. That is plenty of time to have prepared for its launch. But most important, the estimated half-million Jamaicans who have some form of disability, and often face discrimination, deserve the protections promised by the legislation.
Indeed, were the law in effect, Mr Dawes might have availed himself of its provisions, including seeking the intervention of the Jamaica Council for Persons with Disabilities and, possibly, of the proposed Disabilities Rights Tribunal, in determining whether he was unfairly retired by the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) on the onset of blindness. He is, instead, pursuing the case with help from the human-rights group Jamaicans for Justice. Further, Mr Dawes might have been able, as a right, to seek government-financed legal aid in advancing his claim in court.
As this newspaper reported on Sunday, Kojo Dawes, 61, worked at NEPA, the Government’s environmental and planning watchdog, for 27 years. His last job was property, transport and security officer. Mr Dawes had hoped to retire at 65. However, two years ago, he lost his sight permanently, the result of complications from diabetes. In January 2019, he was sent on early retirement.
Mr Dawes contends that he was capable of working and was willing to be reassigned, so his early retirement was discriminatory. But while that goes to the core of the case, the initial concern of the court in granting his request for judicial review is a determination of whether the procedure by which Mr Dawes was retired was valid.
When the Parliament approved the Disabilities Act in 2014, it was with much fanfare. There was great expectation by people with physical and other disabilities that their rights as human beings, and as citizens of Jamaica, would be respected and protected. And if they were not, there would be mechanisms in place, apart from the regular legal arrangements, through which they could seek redress.
In the future, too, public facilities would have to be constructed, and/or modified, to allow access to, and use by, disabled people. More important, however, were the two institutions that were to be established under the law: the council and the tribunal.
With respect to the former, its job, largely, would be to advise policymakers on issues relating to the disabilities, and importantly, helping disabled people with challenges, or who believe they may have been discriminated against, to navigate their way through their concerns. The tribunal, on the other hand, would be a quasi-judicial body. If and when matters reached that far, it would rule on the complaints of aggrieved persons and make orders for redress, including compensation.
Admittedly, there needed to be time for the arrangements to be put in place for the law to be effective. A broad range of public and private institutions would have to adjust to their new obligations. Most people, though, would not have reckoned on a six-year wait, or that this period would elapse without a major public education and awareness effort by the Government, sensitising Jamaicans about the legislation. Indeed, little to nothing has happened in the months since the Throne Speech, when the matter of the law’s imminent enforcement was noted.
Last week, Minister Samuda said he was “pushing” for the law to be ready by the end of next March – that is, at the end of the current fiscal year and on the eve of the start of the new one. But Mr Samuda’s declaration does not sound too definitive.
For that goal to be met, Mr Samuda suggested, many things have to happen. The bodies established by the law have to be launched, and regulations and codes of practice established. “We are well advanced in relation to these items,” the minister said.
What Mr Samuda needs to do is itemise the outstanding issues, establish timelines for their completion, and declare a specific date when the law will come into effect. Jamaica has paid lip service to the rights of people with disabilities for far too long. It is time, now, for real action.