Once again, the world is recognizing the International Day for Persons with Disabilities as designated by the United Nations. It is a time that the world is required to celebrate the achievements of persons with disabilities, whilst at the same time, recognizing the major challenges that the over 1 billion citizens who are living with diverse types of disabilities are confronted with. The theme for this year’s celebration is titled “Building Back Better: Towards a Disability-Inclusive, Accessible and Sustainable Post-Covid-19 World.”
The theme for this year’s celebration is fittingly appropriate and appropriately fitting, in light of the global health crisis, precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The disease has directly affected over 50 million individuals and claimed the lives of over three million. Undoubtedly, some of these individuals are our brothers and sisters with disabilities.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated some existing problems that affect persons with disabilities in societies. Issues relating to access to quality health care, adequate social protection for persons with disabilities, access to quality education, access to employment and access to public facilities have been prominent in the global discourse as it relates to persons with disabilities and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here in the Caribbean, we have heard of the challenges persons with disabilities are facing in accessing education, modern technologies to support their education and work, access to health care and health facilities and inadequate social security mechanisms for their protection in this global crisis. It is indeed a difficult time to be living on earth for all of us. However, it is even more difficult for persons with disabilities who have been marginalized over the years. Can you imagine how difficult it is for indigenous persons with disabilities who are living in their communities? Can you think of how problematic it is for women and girls with disabilities living across the Caribbean? Or can you fathom how traumatic it is for parents and children with disabilities in the region during this COVID-19 pandemic? Indeed, it is a challenging time and we must strengthen the resolve to build back stronger.
The pandemic presents a great opportunity for us to rebuild and strategize for the future. It has shown us how vulnerable we are as human beings. We must therefore make a concerted effort to build a genuinely inclusive and non-discriminatory society where persons with disabilities are placed at the front and centre of development. Hospitals must be built with accessible features to accommodate persons with disabilities. Simultaneously, health professionals must be trained in how to relate with persons with disabilities and persons with disabilities must be given priority treatment at health facilities.
Education is the key to social transformation and empowerment and so our schools must be built with the necessary features to accommodate persons with disabilities. Teachers must be trained in how to deal with students with disabilities and governments must assist persons with disabilities to access the requisite technologies that will aid in their learning experience.
Relatedly, measures must be put in place to provide employment for persons with disabilities throughout the region. We cannot have sustainable development when approximately 90% of the population of persons with disabilities in the region is unemployed.
Additionally, we must ensure that we fix our antiquated social protection systems to make them more responsive to the needs of persons with disabilities. These systems need to be more targeted and inclusive of persons with disabilities.
Finally, there needs to be a fast tracking of the legislative landscape throughout the Caribbean for the protection of persons with disabilities. Only six countries within the Caribbean currently have legislation to protect persons with disabilities and this needs to be corrected if we are to build back stronger in a post-covid-19 environment.
Importantly, governments throughout the region must create an environment where persons with disabilities can have a seat at the table of decision making. Spaces should be created for persons with disabilities to participate in the decision making processes of schools, health facilities, sports, politics and all other important social institutions. This is imperative if we are to build back stronger in a post-covid-19 environment in the Caribbean.
As the CARICOM Special Rapporteur on Disability, I am strengthened with the resolve to intensify my advocacy for persons with disabilities throughout the region. I am prepared to use every platform, whether it is in traditional or new media, conferences or parliament, I am prepared to champion the cause of my brothers and sisters with disabilities. You have an advocate in whom you can depend. Happy International Day for Persons with Disabilities.