Gone are the days when members of the disabled community would be locked away from the wider society. Disability affects hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Research shows that between ten to fifteen per cent of the world’s population lives with some form of disability. Interestingly, the disabled community is the largest minority grouping in the world.
Having a physical disability does not mean one in unproductive. In fact, there are many individuals who live rather enriched and productive lives.
Recently while driving through the parking lot of a major shopping mall in Half Way Tree I saw a young male struggling to get a wheelchair- bound middle- aged looking woman from the paved asphalted area to the elevated passage way of the shopping mall. After a few failed attempts two men came to her rescue and joined in the effort. As I drove along further I realized that there are no ramps for the physically challenged in many of the shopping malls. The problem is even more widespread since in many instances several places of commerce, education and other public institutions are also inaccessible to the physically challenged. The society can and indeed need to do more to make ready access to all public institutions. Our building codes needs to be revisited to cater to the special needs of the disabled community. It is inexcusable that we continue to build public structures without the required support facilities necessary for the disabled community to gain access. The disabled community also faces many forms of discriminations. A 2004 International Labour Organization funded study found that only 35 per cent of working-age persons Americans with disabilities are in fact working compared to 78 per cent of those without disabilities.
The study also revealed that one third of the employers surveyed were of the opinion that persons with disabilities cannot effectively perform the required job tasks. The second most common reason given for not hiring persons with disabilities was the fear of costly special facilities. The government has a major role to play in ensuring integration of this minority grouping in the society by first of all strengthening or passing the required disability specific laws.
Our Trade Unions need to become more involved in the return to work of those with disabilities by using specially designed disability management programmes in the workplace. As the government moves forward with the introduction of the flexi work week we hope that the special needs of the disabled community was taken into consideration.
The ILO funded study also revealed that private insurance providers have introduced more flexible arrangements so that workers who become disabled and who attempt a gradual transition to work would not lose their benefits. Companies are looking for ways to reduce costs by introducing disability management programs in the workplace.
Our Special Olympians and Para Olympians, for example, have brought much pride and joy to Jamaica over the years as they have competed and medaled on numerous occasions.
We need an improved focus from the lobby groups which advocate on behalf of this minority group of Jamaicans. These lobby groups must become more vocal and increase their advocacy on behalf of their members. We must remember at all times that those who are able bodied are just one incident away from losing our sense of mobility. Our disabled community must be empowered with a renewed sense of independence which will allow members of this community to feel a part of the mainstream society. We need to change how the society views members of the disabled community.