It is hoped that a UN grant of US $ 100,000 (TT $ 673,000) will go a long way in bridging the gap and enabling the development of people with disabilities and their inclusion in society at large.
But even with this funding, local stakeholder groups, including the government, have their work cut out for them as they attempt to formulate policies to empower people with disabilities.
The grant. which is part of the United Nations Partnership on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNPRPD) Multi-Partner Trust Fund (MTF), has been released to develop a comprehensive proposal for the inclusion and development of the rights of persons with disabilities.
The project, which is led by a United Nations team from the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), will bring together stakeholders from advocacy groups and government agencies to focus on areas of greatest need for development. urgent for people with special needs.
The program, which will run in three phases, began in May with a series of workshops to discuss how people with disabilities are affected by issues of education, cultural perception and discrimination.
Speaking to Sunday Newsday in a multi-stakeholder virtual interview last Thursday, advocacy groups, ministries and regional health agencies shared their expectations and concerns for the task ahead as they join forces to empower one of the most vulnerable groups of TT.
From these forums, representatives of different groups raised their concerns, which were identified as key points to be addressed in the policy.
Changing the “cultural narrative” of criticism with different capacities
One of the main concerns of stakeholders identified during the discussions was the need to address the perception of people with disabilities by the national community.
Despite the progress made over the years in terms of societal acceptance of people with disabilities, members of different advocacy groups have said they still face challenges in terms of inclusion, which can range from a lack of institutional support for outright discrimination.
People Associated with Visual Impairment (PAVI) Awareness Officer Cecille Alves recalled the obstacles she faced in the school system as a blind person and hoped the program would help make life easier for students.
Alves noted that in addition to a lack of support systems at secondary and higher levels, she also had to deal with the attitudes of some teachers, who were not open to the idea of students with different abilities in the classroom. the school system.
“There was a minority group of teachers who believed that children with special needs should not be in the normal classroom system, because they thought we would have withheld the class, rather than using the opportunity to have it. this is a teachable lesson and how they even teach other students who may have hidden disabilities or learning disabilities.
Dr Taralene Malcolm, PAHO noncommunicable disease advisor and project leader, said these attitudes stem from a lack of understanding of the needs of people with disabilities.
She says one of the goals of the program would be a public information campaign to highlight their potential and capabilities.
“When a person with a disability is looking for a job, (employers) may need to reorganize the way certain things are done. If someone is blind, some reasonable accommodation should be made to accommodate their job.
“All to ensure that the environment is such that people have equal opportunities to participate in all aspects of life in society.”
Data needed for policy development and legislative reform
The lack of accurate and up-to-date figures on people with disabilities is a major obstacle to any policy decision, as officials admit there have been gaps in data collection.
In their funding proposal document, the groups noted census reports that estimate that 52,000 people may be living with a disability in TT, but data on the different categories and age distribution were not available.
PAHO Project Assistant Alicia Hospedales said accurate data is key to any program’s success, as it gives managers a sense of which areas need attention and resources the most.
“Right now we really don’t have specific numbers on people with disabilities. What type of disability do they have? What kind of services do they need?
“The data also tells you what kind of professionals the system needs, because it tells you how many therapists and what kind of therapists, whether professional or psychosocial, are needed. “
She said one of the problems with using data collected from a census was the lack of specific information for people with different abilities.
She said parents were unlikely to mention if they had a child with special needs, in part because they might not understand what constitutes a special need. Hospedales said recommendations had been made to the Central Bureau of Statistics (CSO) to make the issues more inclusive for people with disabilities.
The acting director of the disability unit of the Department of Social Development and Family Services, Terrez Herrera, said work was underway to compile a database on the number of people living with disabilities in the TT.
She said this would be done using information available through the ministry’s disability assistance grant program, which serves around 25,000 people.
“At this point we are trying to establish the relevant areas and expand it to the Ministry of Health, because we will want to see early intervention so that we can follow children from birth to adulthood.
“The registry is supposed to be that repository that will inform our programs and policies, but it’s also another project that’s ongoing, but not completed.”
While the responsibility for developing policies and legislation for people with disabilities rests primarily with the state, civil society and the business community should also play an important role in inclusion.
The topic of partnerships with the private sector was raised during the workshops and was deemed necessary not only for developing institutions accessible to people with special needs, but also for potential employment options for skilled people.
The challenge with this, said Deokie Ramnarine, policy and research manager at the Prime Minister’s Office (OPM) Gender and Child Development, is the lack of legislation requiring companies to hire people with special needs. .
“We would have written to several private sector entities to tell them about national policy, to tell them about the accessibility codes of the Bureau of Standards.
“However, the fact that it’s not backed by legislation, where there are real penalties at this point. It’s really about moral suasion with the private sector.
She said the OPM was working with the Ministry of Labor to find private sector employers willing to hire people with disabilities and match qualified people with disabilities with jobs.
While inclusion is appreciated, representatives of advocacy groups hope that more than superficial gestures, but significant long-term changes can be made in institutions to open doors for people with more disabilities.
Citing the challenges he faces in accessing basic services, Voice of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing President Jamal Legen suggested that sign language should be part of the school curriculum to remove barriers to communication.
The president of the Association of Administrators of Special Public Schools, Derrick Mundy, was also optimistic that the work done would lead to a better understanding of the issues facing people with disabilities.
Mundy, who is blind, said the groups did not need token and “window dressing” solutions, but were open to partnerships that could advance the full inclusion of people with special needs.
Development of the full funding proposal begins in July. This is the last step in proposal planning and incorporates the needs and suggestions raised during the first and second stages of development.
As stakeholders set to work to draft this document, there is cautious optimism that, if successful, the grant will mark the first of many steps towards building a more tolerant and inclusive society, not only through policy changes, but a transformation dealing with people with disabilities.