Despite small victory, persons with disabilities face uphill task
Laura Redpath, Senior Gleaner Writer
Sharmalee Cardoza doesn't like the term 'disabled'. She says the word connotes a lack of worth.
However, many of Jamaica's leaders who speak to equal rights refer to persons living with disabilities as 'disabled'.
"I'm a person with a disability," Cardoza said.
The 22-year-old, who attended the launch of a guide to the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities last Thursday, has been blind her entire life. However, that hasn't stopped her from graduating from the University of the West Indies with a Bachelor of Education in history education.
"When I was younger, I was able to see out of (one) eye, but as I grew, my right eye deteriorated," Cardoza told The Gleaner. "If someone or something is in front of me, I'll know. But I won't be able to describe it or the person, I can just see the form."
She added: "I don't know how (people) look, so I listen to the tone. The tone in their voice is really what tells me I can believe what you're saying."
Henrietta Davis-Wray, chairman of the Combined Disabilities Association, stressed that disability concerns must be viewed as a human-rights issue.
Jamaica was the first country in the world to ratify the UN Convention, as well as the only Commonwealth country in the Western Hemisphere to do so.
According to Davis-Wray, seven to 10 per cent of the Caribbean's population is made up of persons living with disabilities.
She noted there are challenges today that prevent full participation from persons living with disabilities, as it relates to their development and independence.
A few of these obstacles are physical inaccessibility, communication and attitudinal barriers.
"Disabilities were perceived as a health welfare issue before the 1980s. They were viewed from medical and traditional models," Davis-Wray said, providing historical context.
Since the mid-1980s, according to the guide to the convention, it has been internationally acknowledged that people living with disabilities do not "enjoy equal access to their human rights".
Minister of Labour and Social Security Pearnel Charles, speaking at last week's conference, gave his stamp of approval on the UN convention.
"This (convention) will no doubt heighten awareness of the issues among Jamaicans," the minister said. "There is no room for indifference and neglect of persons (living with disabilities). They have been demonstrating the ability to work hard."
However, Charles acknowledged that while Jamaica may have been the first country to subscribe to the guidelines in the UN Convention, there is more work to be done to ensure equal rights and opportunities for all.
Former Prime Minister P.J. Patterson, back in 2003, announced that a national disability act would be introduced in Parliament soon. Seven years later, the National Disability Bill is currently in its ninth draft.
"It's my intention to take (the bill) to Parliament soon for debate and discussion," Charles declared last Thursday.
Dr Heather Little-White, an activist for persons with disabilities and a favoured guest speaker among those in attendance, said while Charles supported and praised the strides persons living with disabilities have made towards equal rights, she didn't see the numbers to prove it.
"We're not seeing the statistics," she stressed, pointing out that the employment rate among persons living with disabilities is low.
Cardoza is currently unemployed despite her qualification to teach history and social studies up to the high-school level.
Delcie Pasco, who is also blind, is also unemployed. She is finishing up her Master of Social Work and lost her job when funding ran out for a social-work programme in inner-city communities.
"I'm qualified," she said, lamenting her jobless status.
Little-White noted that senior officials, such as the minister of health or his representatives, were not present at the launch.
Cardoza said more government officials should have attended.
"I think each ministry should be here or send a representative," Cardoza said.