Disabilities Bill needs more work
Maureen Webber, the parent of a young adult with profound intellectual disabilities, says the Disabilities Bill, which was passed by the House of Representatives last month, falls short of the mark as it fails to take into account some key issues pertaining to the community.
Webber said there is need for the society to find the courage to discuss critical issues such as the provision of a disability allowance caring for a child with severe disabilities.
She also said there needs to be some sort of social security cheque for those over 18 who cannot work because of the severity of their disability and urged legislators not to hide behind the passage of the bill.
Labour and Social Security Minister Derrick Kellier, in piloting the bill through the House of Representatives, said 10 per cent of Jamaicans are disabled. He argued that the bill, when passed into law, would pave the way for all persons in the society to make a contribution to economic growth and national development.
"The task that falls on all of us in this honourable House, and the wider society generally, is to make the political, social, and economic changes necessary to enable the greater inclusion of persons with disabilities into the mainstream of the society," Kellier said.
The bill, which had been in gestation for over a decade, will require the State to transform the Jamaica Council for Persons with Disabilities into a body corporate, which will mean it has to be funded from the public purse. Webber, however, contends that the council "cannot even register 3,000 of the 400,000 because they don't get it".
"Why would I register Brian? What does he get, especially since I must get a doctor and pay a cost to get him there?"
She said that a World Health Organisation 2011 study estimated that persons with disabilities constituted 15 per cent of the world's population, a figure that is higher in developing economies.
"Guided by this estimate and the current population in Jamaica, some 400,000 persons in Jamaica have a disability. Persons with disabilities experience daily discrimination," Webber said.
In emerging economies like Jamaica, resources and opportunities are directed to the non-disabled community. Webber said "Global discrimination prompted significant work, which resulted in the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities," Webber said.
She further noted that persons with disabilities are the most economically improvised, with 82 per cent living below the poverty line, according to a United Nations 2010 report.
"Between 785 million and 975 million of the global population of persons with disabilities are of working age (15 years or older), and most live in developing countries. The labour force participation rate of persons with disabilities is low in many countries. Recent figures for members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development indicate that slightly less than half of working-age persons with disabilities were economically inactive compared to one in five persons without disabilities of working age," Webber said.
Webber, who is a former deputy general secretary of the governing People's National Party (PNP), sat on a committee when the bill was being conceived years ago. She said in reading the Disabilities Act, which is to be debated in the Senate, her heart sank on several occasions.
"Every time I read one of these qualifying phrases - 'as far as is practicable', 'to the extent that resources permit', 'has the reasonable access to', 'undue burden' - what I read as I saw these phrases littered through the act was one word and one word only: 'handicap'," Webber said.
"The very thing that I am anticipating is going to increase my access, increase the possibility of inclusion in the social and economic fabric of the society, throws up a series of 'handicaps'," she added.
According to Webber, with Jamaica being an emerging economy with myriad challenges, "When you start to say that yes, you can have access to education, however, this is guided by 'reasonable arrangements within the education system in order to facilitate the education of persons with disabilities."
"The schoolroom door is not yet open for our community. Yes, we are building schools with wheelchair access and that there are stand-alone learning spaces for a few in each of the groups of persons with disabilities, but it is going to take more than 'reasonable arrangements' to ensure that our young persons with disabilities have access to education," Webber said.
In relation to employment, Webber pointed to a 2004 World Bank report which confirms that up to 90 per cent of people with disabilities are unemployed and said most of those who are employed are in jobs in which they receive little or no monetary remuneration. She said that the provision in the bill that there is no discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities who are seeking employment is insufficient.
"We are going to have to do much more than this because this is an issue about bias and perception. Discrimination is pervasive. One example comes immediately to mind. The NYS has a deliberate policy that 10 per of our clients should be young persons with disabilities. For the NYS summer employment programme, there were 209 applicants, well below the target of 490.
"But what is more disappointing is that although these young persons went through the same interview process to be eligible for the summer programme, some 65 have not yet been placed. Why? Employers will not take them. I hasten to add that there are a few private sector firms that have their own clear commitment to including qualified persons with disabilities in their work force," Webber said.
"There is going to be need for a conversation about the needs of adults with disabilities who, because of the complexity of their disability, in some instances compounded by access to a learning space which builds on their abilities, cannot work. Because, guess what? No amount of good genes will keep some of us alive to outlive our children. Where do they go? Their social security needs to be addressed now," Webber said.
PULL QUOTE: It is going to take more than 'reasonable arrangements' to ensure that our young persons with disability have access to education
WEBBER'S WISH LIST
a. There is no disability allowance caring for a child with severe disabilities
There needs to be some sort of social security cheque for those over 18
who cannot work because of the severity of their disability
c. There needs to be tax relief not just for those with a disability who work but a household unit,
d. Tax break on our savings if we are building a trust for our children, etc.