It is a distinct pleasure for me to be addressing you as your Guest Speaker this morning, at this your Fifth Regional Disability Studies Conference. I am conscious of the fact that this Conference comes against the backdrop of one of the most crushing events to have impacted our generation and at a time when major emphasis must be placed on the vulnerable and disadvantaged amongst us. The timeliness and significance of this conference cannot therefore be underestimated. The Caribbean Community Secretariat stands shoulder to shoulder with you and pledges its ongoing support to ensure equal opportunity for all citizens of the Community, and in particular, for citizens with disabilities in our Community.
Every once in a while…. Let me modify that……in every generation an outstanding man or woman is raised up and called upon to champion a cause which speaks to the very essence of what it means to be human. Spencer W. Kimball reminds us that we should all be involved in quiet acts of selfless service, and I believe Senator Dr. Floyd Morris has done just that. He is bright, passionate about his convictions and committed to relentlessly pursuing that which he has put his hand to. I know this, not from reading about him but from our close association and friendship as fellow students at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus Jamaica, in the 1990. Floyd, I take this occasion to publicly commend you on your achievements as the first CARICOM Special Rapporteur on Disabilities and to congratulate you on your re-appointment for a second term. I take this opportunity to also commend and congratulate the University of the West Indies for its leadership in the field of disabilities studies and for hosting this 5th biennial conference.
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, if there were ever a time for this dialogue, it is now. The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified and intensified the many challenges faced by persons with disabilities.
Here are a few of the facts:
- pre-pandemic estimates suggested that 40 – 68% of young women with disabilities were likely to experience sexual violence before age 18. With the increase in reported sexual violence cases during the COVID -19 pandemic, it can be reasonably deduced that women with disabilities faced even greater risk.
- only 1 in 10 persons with disabilities had access to the assistive technology at home that is needed to be successful.
- Closer home in the Caribbean, students already confronting learning poverty and increased marginalisation such as those from the lower socio-economic strata, rural and remote areas and those with special education needs, continue to be disproportionally affected by disruptions to education, with serious implications for their future social and economic well-being.
- Assessments conducted during the lockdown in Latin America and the Caribbean, found that persons with disabilities were four times more likely to experience physical, sexual and emotional violence. Women with disabilities in particular were up to 10 times more likely to experience sexual violence (WHO, 2020).
Ever since the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, increased attention has been placed on the promotion, protection, and advancement of the full enjoyment of human rights by persons with disabilities with pledged commitment that persons with disabilities shall enjoy full equality under the law. The reality however, is that many of the signatories to the Convention have faced challenges in meeting the lofty ideals enshrined in the Convention.
The noble words that are crafted and captured on paper are not automatically translated into action particularly when competing priorities make access to resources a regrettable battle that further marginalizes the vulnerable. I believe our policy makers are committed to the goals of the convention, but in order for society to embrace the realities of people with disabilities, more awareness will be required, and greater advocacy will have to be promoted. It is therefore admirable, that the University of the West Indies has established the Centre for Disability Studies to lead research and action. It is my hope therefore, that the data generated and the advocacy of the Centre will continually lead both public discourse and policy action to secure the rights of persons with disabilities.
The COVID – 19 pandemic, and how it impacted us as a region, has caused the entire society to reflect on how ordinary and taken for granted life activities can be constrained. We all had to steer into the darkness of an uncertain future; be immobilized by confined movement and lockdowns and constrained by deafening noises of death and sudden restrictions to how we interacted with each other. The disability of our social system pales in comparison to what many of you have to endure on a daily basis. This has certainly been a time of reality check for us as a region as well as individually. As a region, we know what it is to experience constraints and limitations in our access to the COVID -19 vaccines, the very means of saving lives, because of our size and the leanness of our pocketbooks. At the individual level many of us would have experienced first-hand what it means to be restricted, isolated as it were because of the very necessary social distancing protocols put in place to stop the spread of the virus. Ladies and gentlemen, I put it to you that social isolation and lack of access to essential health care and other services, housing, financing, access to buildings, transportation, are the daily experiences of people with disabilities that should not go unaddressed.
I am aware that CARICOM has prioritised the need to put the issues of persons with disabilities at the centre of action for the Community. The Petion Ville Declaration which emanated from a High Level Ministerial Meeting in Haiti (2013) on the mandate of the 34th Regular Meeting of the CARICOM Heads of Government acknowledges the universality, indivisibility and interdependence of all human rights, including the right to development. I am certain you will agree with me ladies and gentlemen, that there can be no development, at the individual or national level, without health. The Petion Ville Declaration also recognises the need for us to build societies based on social cohesion and inclusion in which all persons, including those with disabilities, enjoy the privileges and fundamental freedoms, which are their human rights. So how do we truly translate these noble words and thoughts into reality? I believe we can apply the same principles we have used and are using as a region, to successfully address access to vaccines and other challenges related to the COVID- 19 to address and find solutions to the ongoing needs of persons with disabilities and work towards making our Community a disability inclusive one.
So, what did we do as a region to counteract the COVID -19 vaccine access challenges? We had political support at the very highest-level advocating for a better deal; we applied the principle of functional cooperation by pooling our human and technical resources in regional institutions such as the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA). CDEMA, the Regional Security System to ensure safe and timely delivery and distribution of the vaccines; we developed common guidelines and protocols which each country could adopt and adapt in its response; we engaged the support of our international development partners. We can apply these same principles as we seek to address matters relating to people with disabilities and specifically, for this conference, the issue of the provision of and access to quality health care for people with disabilities.
But I hasten to say this, more needs to be done if we are to see the desired changes and if our people with disabilities are to experience the change. This time we need to turn our attention inwardly, do some introspection and identify the disparities and inequities in our countries that negatively impact on our Community’s citizens who face disabilities. The time for action is now and we must act together, and this conference serves as a perfect platform to elevate the concerns, present incontrovertible data and advocate for further and more practical action. So, if you will permit me, I wish to pose 3 points for your consideration.
The first is Educate
I believe it breaks the heart of every parent to find/ to realize his or her child has a disability…. be it physical, mental or psychological because they know the challenges this child will face. To their credit, many rise above the initial shock, and become a buttress for their child. I say to you, everyone needs a buttress and education is a good place to start. And here I am speaking of the sensitization and public education of others to address the fear of and discrimination towards people with disabilities, on the one hand and the education of the person with disability to equip him or her to live a healthy life – one which consists of physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of infirmity. This is a fundamental right of everyone human being…irrespective of race, religion and abilities.
Secondly, we should build on our successes
Caribbean people are well known for their creativity and boldness. As a Region, we have led the way in steering the narrative of Non-Communicable Diseases to the global level; the Jamaica Moves initiative to address lifestyle related NCDs is another example. It has been embraced by Ministers of Health across the Region and has become the Caribbean Moves.
I have also noted that Commonwealth Ministers of Health at the close of the 2020 meeting in their Final Outcome Statement commits to supporting a Commonwealth Moves to address risk factors on NCDs. I think of other global achievements such as our childhood immunization programme, which has successfully eliminated poliomyelitis and measles; I think of the Pan Caribbean Partnership for HIV and AIDS, which has been recognised as an international best practice. These are testimonies to the fact that when we set our minds to it, we can, as a Region, achieve our goals.
And finally, I urge you to lead by example.
I have taken note of the topics to be discussed. All are relevant. Each needs to be interrogated. Over the next 2 days, as you listen and participate, identify the contribution you can make towards researching, promoting, providing, legislating, advocating for quality Healthcare for persons with Disabilities in the Caribbean. Prioritize the important. It’s been said that when we do not do what has to be done in order of their importance, jobs arrange themselves according to their urgency. Lastly, set a timetable and work at it.
I reaffirm the Secretariat’s commitment to support the activities to ensure a more inclusive approach to addressing the issues faced by persons with disabilities and look forward to the outcome of your deliberations.
All the best for a successful Conference.
I thank you.