THE MINISTRY of Social Development and Family Services has distributed a draft document, which is set to replace the 2004 policy for people with disabilities.
Various disability groups are carefully examining this draft.
The consensus is that this document, which seems to have many voices, simply does not set the right tone.
It certainly begins well, and gives careful attention to the fact that Trinidad and Tobago has now signed and ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. But even as the scribes outline the meaning and implications of the convention, and in particular its general principles, there is a sense that the drafters have not done enough homework.
After all, even in the preamble the statistics are obsolete and wrong.
The unthreading of the convention’s general principles becomes a major issue when interpretation falls short of both clarity and contemporary relevance as in the explanation provided for the inherent principle to have respect “for the evolving capacities of children with disabilities.” The word “evolving” is key here.
This concept entails recognising that perceptions concerning the potential of children with disabilities will also evolve over time. This means that barriers to education and to achievement must continue to be pushed and as children prove their potential, policies and services must adapt.
Think of how little was expected of a child with a disability in the past and how education policies and services all over the world have enabled people with disabilities to learn and to prove how much they can do. It is possible that this is what “supporting children’s maturation, autonomy and self- expression” means. But the core idea is somehow lost.
Of course, many of the flaws of the document are hidden by language that does more to confuse than clarify and is often vague and without specifics. Take for example: “Sensitisation activities undertaken to raise awareness and inform persons with disabilities and other target groups on the convention and the rights it includes.” Why, one asks, is it necessary to have sensitisation activities for people with disabilities? Is this not needed for those who are not aware and not disabled? Continuing to look at the section that advocates the raising of the level of public awareness, the list includes “genetic screening”.
Given that abortion is not available in this country if a defective foetus is discovered, then this seems pointless; but again, one might also ask whether the ethics of eugenics also needs to be discussed, as is now happening all over the world.
Who decides whether a baby born with a disability is worthy of life? Who determines what is the capacity for happiness or fulfilment for that child? There is a grave lack of focus in the section dealing with access to the built environment.
We are told that there should be “development of an environment that is barrier-free and accessible for all.” Will the Government ensure that pavements are fixed so that the blind and visually impaired do not fall? This imprecision of language and intent is compounded by the fact that the section begins with a mention of the problems faced by people with intellectual disabilities, but makes no suggestion as to how these services may be provided.
Should there perhaps be a transport pass which allows a person with an intellectual disability to travel with a companion as they access sporting, educational, work or social amenities and facilities? Nonetheless, the appended action plan includes the unrealistic goal of adapting in three to five years, all public and private recreational, sporting and cultural facilities to accommodate people with disabilities.
The real issue that critics have in looking at this policy document is the deep sense throughout that people with disabilities should focus on vocational skills and not expect realistically to gain academic success or meaningful work. This suggests that the drafters themselves have not come out of the dark ages.
One fundamental lack, since this is a document that seeks to achieve inclusion, is the absence of any hard commitment to giving assistance to all parents, mothers, who give birth to a child with a disability.
The authors seem to be oblivious to the cost of caring for a child with a disability.
There is a stated aim to dissuade and hopefully dismantle institutional care, but this means that parents must be given the capacity to care for a child at home. This takes money. It is not enough to meanstest assistance. What is needed is positive discrimination that will offer such services free of charge regardless of income and to put in place measures to prevent fraud and bobol.
While much is suggested by the draft there is no mention whatsoever of a budget allocation.
Will the Government actually provide funds for these services? These budgetary needs are first of all in the area of education, and in particular mainstream education.
No amount of talk and no policy will accomplish the enrichment of the lives of people with disabilities unless the education system that supports these aims provides a disability-specific education and this will take money. What is also fundamental to inclusion is a system that will encourage employers, both in the private and public sectors, to hire people with disabilities.
Again this has budgetary implications and should take the form of incentives or grants.