Treat the disabled with dignity
When it was announced, last week Wednesday at a ceremony to award the country’s top performers at this year’s Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) examinations, that Mr Ganesh Singh, a visually impaired student who sat the exams electronically, gained grade ones in English A and Social Studies, the audience of mostly students erupted into cheers. Mr Singh’s achievement serves to show the naysayers et al that a physical disability does not affect brain capacity and that inclusive education should be the rule rather than the exception. One hopes that it would be made possible for Mr Singh to pursue tertiary education, if he so desires.
On Sunday last, this newspaper published an interview with education expert Karen Hall, who has a physical disability and who suffered mental and emotional torment as a child and discrimination as an adult because of her disability. Ms Hall praised and paid tribute to her mother and grandmother—whom she described as women ahead of their time—who treated her with love and respect. But she was still scarred by the cruelty meted out to her by other relatives and by so-called, well meaning people in authority.
Ms Hall, who has attained a Masters degree and works at the National Centre for Education Resource Development (NCERD) told this newspaper that in her view, systems in Guyana surrounding disability education are too rigid. She opined that children with special needs should be to be catered for and accommodation must be made in schools for them. She said that for too long children with great potential are falling by the wayside because they are disabled. She expressed the wish that women with disabilities could become more assertive and take charge of their lives, but noted that sometimes everything works against people with disabilities.
Even before Ms Hall’s interview was conducted, the words ‘everything works against people with disabilities’ were confirmed by another differently abled woman, Ms Lucilleanne Barry, who expressed disgust at the fact that GuyExpo, which was held earlier in October, did not cater for the disabled. In a letter to the editor, which was published in this newspaper on October 12, she noted that almost all of the booths and exhibits were inaccessible as there were no wheelchair ramps. Further, even getting into the exhibition site proved a challenge as the entrance was not wheelchair accessible. She noted, too, in the same letter, that too many establishments were still not wheelchair-friendly and some of those that were had ramps that were too steep and also did not cater for navigation around the premises once a wheelchair-bound person made it inside.
Co-Chair of the GuyExpo Planning Committee, Mr Derrick Cummings, responding to Ms Barry’s letter sought to assure her and the rest of the disabled community that “additional steps will be put in place to make next year’s GuyExpo friendlier and more suited to their needs.” Mr Cummings no doubt meant well, but his letter, published in this newspaper on October 13 only served to make Ms Barry’s point. Mr Cummings’s revelation that the planning committee had explored “importing a golf-cart type vehicle to serve the disabled during GuyExpo” showed extreme myopia. What if there were more disabled people than the golf cart’s capacity? What if everyone wanted to go in different directions at the same time? Mr Cummings also wrote about the space granted to the National Commission on Disability to display a core house for the disabled, which was commendable. But the fact that the Prime Minister and his wife were able to visit the house and see its features did nothing for people like Ms Barry, who may have wanted to see it but would have been prevented by the lack of access.
The tendency to treat the disabled as if they are infants or sheep is insulting. They are citizens like the rest of us. Those who are mobile and independent only need consideration, not mollycoddling.
The Persons with Disabilities Act was passed in Parliament in June 2010 and assented to by then president Bharrat Jagdeo in November the same year. This piece of legislation had been in gestation for some 16 years. It was 1994, when stakeholders began consultations to fashion a policy on disability rights, which was tabled in the National Assembly in 1996.
It is a well-known fact that unless the regulations in any law are strictly enforced and enforceable, then there is no incentive for lawbreakers to pay heed to them. In the case of the Disabilities Act, this would also refer to those who stigmatise and discriminate out of ignorance. One hopes that people with disabilities do not have to wait another 16 years for the recommendations under the act to be fully implemented.