Thursday 8th June, 2006

Leela Ramdeen
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Are we including disabled?

The fundamental law of human beings is inter-dependence. A person is a person through other persons —Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

I thought of these words when I read about the tragic death of 50 -year-old Prakash Singh. The media reported that Singh, who had no legs, was found slumped on the driver’s seat in his car which was parked under a tree on the compound of the San Fernando General Hospital.

Reports are he had died two-three days before anyone noticed he was dead. His wheelchair, a bottle of water and a bucket with a pair of trousers were found outside the vehicle.

Singh’s car had been adapted to enable him to drive. Police suspect he died of natural causes. What I find tragic is that it appears Singh, of no fixed abode, had been living in his car on that compound for over three months and some people knew about his plight and did nothing.

Have we become so heartless as a society that we walk on the other side of the road and ignore the plight of those in need?

It was Jane Addams who said: “The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain—until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”

We all have a responsibility to promote the dignity of each human being. Are we including people with disabilities in our communities? Do they have real jobs, friends, homes, education etc?

Inter alia, the Vision 2020 document states that by that date it is envisioned that T&T will become an inclusive society in which every citizen will have equal opportunities to achieve his/her fullest potential; all citizens will enjoy a high quality of life and the diversity and creativity of all our people will be valued and nurtured. Those who are disabled also have talent and are creative.

We can’t sprinkle fairy dust on citizens and expect them to change as if by magic in the year 2020. The implementation of a country’s vision is serious business. Change should have begun some time ago. But it’s not too late. Change must start with you and me now, today! However, we can only ensure that we are moving in the right direction if we are all reading from the same page. Do we all share the same vision?

Helen Keller, the deaf/blind American author, activist and lecturer, was once asked: “What do you think would be worse than being blind?” She replied: “Having sight without vision.”

What is our vision in T&T and in our communities for all our people? Our people are our greatest assets. The deaths of individuals such as Prakash, Emily, Sean and Akiel should not be in vain. What lessons have we learned from their deaths?

I can only pray that there will be an investigation into the circumstances leading up to Singh’s death. Do our government ministries, eg the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Social Development, have policies for dealing with such issues? The latter ministry has responsibility for meeting the needs of people with disability. All people, no matter the extent of their disability, deserve respect, dignity and a life worth living to their fullest capacity.

Does the head of security, who obviously knew that Singh had been living in his car on the compound, know to whom he should report if he is to seek appropriate assistance for someone in Singh’s circumstances? What about members of staff at the hospital who may have seen Singh there day in and day out for three months?

And what about Singh’s family and the community in which he lived before he became “homeless?”

We must all hold ourselves accountable for the state of affairs in our country. We must address the erosion of the extended family, the growth of materialism, selfishness, individualism, and lack of respect for life.

While a review of our legislation related to the rights/entitlements of disabled people may be overdue, legislation alone will not enable us to build an inclusive society. Our faith communities must play a greater role in educating and encouraging their faithful to live their faiths by demonstrating “love for neighbour.”

More than 10 per cent of our people are disabled. In our quest to promote equality, integration, and dignity in T&T, we must not forget those, like Singh, who are vulnerable. Many individuals who are disabled continue to be the subject of social prejudices, discrimination, abuse, neglect and segregation.

I read the story of a young man who was suffering deteriorating use of his legs and who relied on a wheelchair to get around. He said:

“A big part of what makes disability so frightening is the treatment it elicits from others... this is true at all levels of society... Everybody wants to imagine that they’ll still be loved, even after losing their power. But too often we build relationships to share power. If one of us can’t deliver, ‘poof’ goes the relationship. I think of all the disabled people who struggle to live ‘independently’... We’re learning that we’re disabled mostly by ourselves.”

Tackling the social/economic inequality faced by those who are disabled and their families requires resources and policy initiatives. T&T’s disability strategy—if we have one—must include a framework for action towards a fully inclusive society.

One of my friends from New Zealand has been telling me about that country’s disability strategy which includes “pathways to inclusion.” All government departments there are required to prepare annual plans on how they intend to implement the strategy.

I am certain that there are many such strategies that can inform any plans that we may have. There is no need to reinvent the wheel if we can adapt certain strategies to our local situation. However, we must act with a sense of urgency if we are to ensure that disabled members of our communities are given the chance to participate in and contribute to society and to achieve their potential.

In a speech on the theme “Building a truly inclusive society,” Steve Maharey, a government minister in New Zealand, spoke about their disability strategy. He rightly said: “Whether we work in partnership across government agencies, with community leaders or groups, or with individuals, success in building social wellbeing boils down to a bond between people—people who share a common vision and who are committed to work together to achieve it.”

The challenge for us is to work tirelessly to forge such a bond and to commit ourselves to work to achieve our vision—remembering always, as Cesar Chavez says, “We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community. Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sake and for our own.”

As we approach another Independence Day, let us recognise the importance of “interdependence” among our people.

Leela Ramdeen is a lawyer and education consultant










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