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Caribbean disability conference: ‘we are an opportunity, not a burden

At a conference in Antigua this week, disability rights’ advocates said that they don’t want special favours. Instead, they are calling for their basic human rights to be respected, protected and fulfilled.

The second ‘I Am Able’ conference brought together more than 120 delegates from governments, charities, donor agencies and disabled people’s organisations from the eastern Caribbean.

The conference was opened by the Governor-General of Antigua and Barbuda, Sir Rodney Williams. Other sessions were led by prominent regional spokespeople including the Caribbean Community’s Special Rapporteur on Disability Senator Floyd Morris, UN Ambassador Aubrey Webson and international ability activists Chaeli Mycroft and Merphilus James.

“The challenges being faced by an estimated one billion persons with disabilities cannot be taken lightly”, said the Governor-General. “It requires all stakeholders to do more to build a more inclusive society.”

Following the first conference, hosted by the Commonwealth Youth Council in Antigua in 2017, the government adopted the Disabilities and Equal Opportunities Act.

“But there is room to do so much more,” said Samantha Marshall, Antigua’s Minister of Social Transformation, Human Resource Development, Youth and Gender Affairs.

Delegates agreed that while good-hearted commitments are appreciated, more should be done to ensure that people with disabilities enjoy fundamental freedoms and full equality under the law, as well as full participation in the social, economic, political and cultural spheres of life.

Chaeli Mycroft, the first female quadriplegic to summit Kilimanjaro, said: “There is great importance given to inclusion. It should also be reflected in the reality on the ground. We, persons with disabilities, are an opportunity, not a burden. There is a benefit when we are included and a cost when excluded.”

Delegates developed the following five-point agenda for governments in the region to implement so barriers to accessibility are removed and people with disabilities can live independently and participate in their communities on an equal footing.

Research shows that persons with disabilities seek more health care and have greater unmet needs than those without disabilities.

Delegates asked governments to develop programmes to ensure persons with disabilities are aware of their health conditions and have access to quality free or affordable healthcare and rehabilitation services. They proposed that healthcare providers should receive training to be fully informed and skilled to meet the needs of persons with disabilities.

2. Provide accessible education

Ninety per cent of children with disabilities in developing countries do not attend school, accordingly to the UN.

Delegates urged governments to make education accessible for all and to invest in the necessary support such as training school staff, providing transport services and introducing a school to work transition scheme. They suggested that assistive technology should be adopted in schools to make learning easier and to improve learning outcomes.

3. Employment in mainstream jobs

Recent reports suggest that unemployment among persons with disabilities is far higher than non-disabled.

Delegates recommended that regulation and legislation must be embedded within the domestic law and advised governments to focus on industries that are suitable for persons with disabilities to get a job. They asked for funding towards providing adapted equipment, delivering training to sensitise employers and developing campaigns to promote entrepreneurship.

4. No more exclusion and violence

The conference highlighted that due to stigma and discrimination, neglect and indifference, people with disabilities continue to be excluded from mainstream society.

Demanding the enforcement of legislation and regulation and the establishment of service desks, delegates requested governments to ensure persons with disabilities are no longer at risk and families and caretakers can spot signs and symptoms of violence and report cases.

5. Stand up and push for disability rights

Delegates identified the need for countries to collect data about persons with disabilities to inform the development of programmes and services while ensuring the data is made accessible to persons with disabilities.

They called on persons with different types of impairments and disabilities to unite as one group rather sub-groups and continue engaging with stakeholders to push for progress on disability rights.

Minister Marshall announced that her government will establish an inter-ministerial group on disability to drive the progress on this mandate and expedite the Disabilities and Equal Opportunities Act’s implementation.

Layne Robinson, the Commonwealth’s head of Social Policy Development, said: “Antigua and Barbuda is a regional champion of persons with disabilities.

“We believe this light from the Caribbean will shine across the region and the Commonwealth to encourage other countries to accelerate the implementation of the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, delivering on the promise of an inclusive society, where no one is left behind.”

The conference was hosted by the Commonwealth in partnership with the government of Antigua and Barbuda and the Commonwealth Youth Council to promote practical steps which countries can take forward to improve prospects of education, employment, health and mobility for persons with disabilities.

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