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December 12, 2004

Jamaica's disabled count their blessings.

From: Jamaica Observer, Jamaica - Dec 12, 2004


By Claudienne Edwards
Observer staff reporter
Sunday, December 12, 2004

Only four countries in the Americas treat their disabled citizens better than Jamaica. But although those statistics may sound impressive, for the disabled person negotiating life on Jamaica's tough streets it is not yet time to start celebrating.

But no time to celebrate yet, they say

The community of disabled persons spent a week, from November 28 to December 4 - Disabilities Awareness Week - contemplating the challenges and opportunities facing them, and counting their blessings.

One definite positive was that there seemed to have been general agreement, at least among the Combined Disabilities Association (CDA) and the Jamaica Council for Persons with Disabilities (JCPD) which jointly staged the week, that perceptions of the disabled as handicapped persons unable to make a worthwhile contribution to society have largely changed.

That was helped significantly by the elevation of the former blind wonder, Floyd Morris, to Senator and later minister of state in the labour and social security ministry. He is one of an increasing number of people with disabilities who are making their mark in the society.

The disabled have a man in court in Senator Morris, who has responsibility for their welfare. The last census, in 2002, put the number of people with disabilities in Jamaica at approximately 200,000. But planners argue that the number has substantially increased, especially because of the high number of persons being maimed daily in violent confrontations or accidents.

"We have come a far way since the Jamaica Council for Disabilities was established in 1973," Ransford Wright, the JCPD director, told the Sunday Observer. Wright found much comfort in the International Disability Rights Monitor (IDRM) project, which surveyed 24 countries in the Americas in 2003 and found Jamaica to be the fifth "most inclusive" country in dealing with the disabled.

The countries rating better than Jamaica were the United States, Brazil, Canada and Costa Rica. The "report card" was based on 11 questions covering six issues including: support for the UN treaty, legal protection for the disabled, education and employment opportunities, accessibility, health services and housing and communications.

Monica Bartley, the director of the Administrative Statistics Division at the state-run Statistical Institute (Statin) and chairperson of the Combined Disabilities Association, researched and prepared the report on Jamaica for the IDRM.

She listed several of the enlightened policies Jamaica had implemented to improve the quality of life of disabled persons, notably a National Policy on Disability in Jamaica passed by Parliament in November 1999; several laws that protect people with disabilities and income tax concessions, introduced in 1992 for persons with disabilities.

The National Policy on Disability, which was guided by United Nations Standard Rules, provides a framework for how the government and civil society can cooperate to equalise opportunities for persons with disabilities. One drawback is that the policy has no legal sanctions and is not enforceable. However, the government is in the process of developing a National Disabilities Act.

"Where the rights of persons with disabilities are violated the primary mechanisms for recourse are civil lawsuits, criminal prosecutions and intervention from independent human rights organisations," Bartley explained. It is for that reason that she is concerned about the problem of representation in court for people who are deaf.

"The deaf have a problem communicating their grievances to the court, as the justice system has no sign language interpreters," she complained. Sometimes the Jamaica Association for the Deaf helped out in finding an interpreter but personnel were not always available, she said.

Other pluses on Wright's list include the significant strides in improving education a nd access to government and private buildings, despite continuing problems. He said that the state had also set up many institutions that worked, in conjunction with non-governmental organisations and international bodies, to improve the life of disabled persons.

Collaborative efforts of the ministries of education, labour and social security and health had also been pivotal in achieving best practices for the physically challenged, he said.

But while the disabled community is heartened by the progress made to date, there is the view that many areas of the society are still not user-friendly for their needs, and result in these persons not having the level of independence they crave.

Bartley said that in the area of medical care, for example, the curriculum for medical students "doesn't include anything on disability". Hospitals did not take into account the special needs of persons who became paraplegics as a result of accidents or violence.

"When these people are leaving the hospitals, I don't think they are sufficiently advised about their condition, the necessary steps that they should take. So you find that many of them die very early as a result of developing secondary disabilities.

"Paraplegics would be more prone to getting bedsores, so you would want to advise them when they are leaving the hospital to get a special cushion. They have to take special care of their bladders and stuff like that, they have to drink plenty water and follow certain dietary guidelines," Bartley explained.

Dr Heather Little-White, the prominent nutritionist who was crippled by a gunman's bullet in 1999, can testify to the truth of Bartley's assertions. Five days after the shooting, she was taken to the Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, Florida, for further treatment.

There they confirmed an earlier prognosis that she would not walk again. But the hospital counselling service was "magnificent" and they prepared her well for life as a paraplegic, she said. "If I did not go to Jackson Memorial, I do not think I would feel as positive about my situation as I do today," she remarked.

In the construction of new sidewalks, the needs of disabled persons are still not being taken into account, the Combined Disabilities Association chairman said. "Some parts of the sidewalk are so narrow, that if you are in a wheelchair it is impossible for you to push it on there.

There are also no curb cuts on the sidewalk. In other countries such as the US, the end, middle and other strategic points of every sidewalk have a flat area. So if you are steering a wheelchair or using a stroller you can easily push them on to the sidewalk," Bartley said. Light posts are also quite hazardous for blind persons. The blind sometimes walked smack into them, she said.

In the case of emergency shelters, although the Combined Disabilities Association worked closely with the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM), most of the shelters were not accessible, added Gloria Goffe, the blind co-ordinator of the CDA.

"Even if you can get into the shelter itself, the bathrooms are not accessible for people in wheelchairs and even persons with crutches," she explained. "The toilet seats are uncomfortable. To use the toilet some disabled persons need chairs because their knees can't bend and if the chairs are too low or too high, it might affect them.

It is also important to have bars in the toilets and showers, for them to be able to grab onto so that they can seat themselves on the toilet or bathe." Goffe said that shelter managers and emergency workers should also be trained to deal with the needs of persons with disabilities.

The electronic media, especially the television stations, should also be sensitised to the needs of the sector, she stressed. ".Television notices warning about disasters should be close-captioned or somebody should be there to sign so that deaf persons can read or follow the instructions," Goffe said.

"Whatever ODPEM is doing they have to take into account that there are people who are deaf, that there are people who can't walk. They also have to take into consideration those who are slower mentally. So notices have to be written in language that is simple enough for people to understand, which I think they try to do."

Goffe felt strongly that an amendment to the Road Traffic Act was needed to allow deaf persons to drive motor vehicles legally. "The authorities say that they will not be able to hear sirens, but right now we do have some deaf persons who got driver's licences overseas and have continued to drive since coming home," she said.

Turning to the tourism industry, she said that for wheelchair-bound persons who want to spend a moderately-priced vacation at a hotel, Jamaica was apparently not an option. While the expensive five-star properties cater to the disabled, she said, the small hotels were not accessible to the disabled sector.

"Recently, we had Italians in wheelchairs who telephoned to request us to find accommodation for them at a smaller hotel that was accessible," said Goffe.

"It is difficult to find a small hotel that is accessible. You can get on to the ground floor but you can't get to the upper floors because there are no lifts. But even if you can get to the top floor, the bathrooms are not accessible. It is clear that there has to be a whole lot of education."

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