The decision by the High Court last week, mandating the court
administration to make the Halls of Justice (and by extension
other courts) wheelchair-accessible, should not have been
For several years the voices of the disabled have been heard
as to the disadvantages and discrimination they suffer.
Remember when George Daniel and his group staged a protest
outside National Flour Mills, a few years ago, about discriminatory
employment practices in relation to disabled workers?
Consequent on that, there was a national award given to Daniel
in recognition of the work that he and his group were doing.
In the last few years as well, the press has highlighted the
achievements of the Special Olympians, and there was public
acclamation of the achievements of youngster Veera Bhajan,
who was born without any hands.
One would have expected an administration that was aware of
these matters should have been sensitive to the plight of
This appears not to have been the case. More than a year ago,
I wrote in my column an article called The disabled deserve
I highlighted a situation specifically at the Hi-Lo grocery
in St Augustine where parking said to be reserved for the
handicapped was being used by all and sundry.
Among other things, I pointed out, then, that the security
in the grocery and the management appeared not to be capable
or interested in dealing with the situation.
The response to that article was overwhelming, and I wrote
about that, too. Many people related their personal experiences
as disabled persons.
Some of them were people who had become infirm because of
age or illness, or both, and they were particularly upset
that public places either did not cater for their needs, or
if they did they did not enforce their measures.
At that time, I had suggested that the Government look into
the situation and consider legislation as a means of resolving
some of the issues. Nothing was done, needless to saysome
Now, the courts have effectively ruled against (and I am not
sure if the matter was a consent order, but that is irrelevant)
its own administration.
One wonders why it had to take a court order to make the authorities
aware that if our Halls of Justice could only be accessed
by the able-bodied, this might lead to a denial of access
to justice literally.
In the past, witnesses and accused persons have had to be
carried from the road up the numerous steps to the ground
floor of the Port-of-Spain Hall of Justice. Public access
is by these stairs alone.
I wonder whether it ever occurred to anyone that they had
never seen a wheelchair-bound person in the precincts of the
The inability to walk does not mean that one could not have
been a victim of a crime or a witness to some event. It leads
to the question whether the disabled refrain from coming to
court deliberately, because of the physical difficulties,
or is it that they are not asked to come because some people
equate physical disability with stupidity?
Either way, it is unacceptable.
The authorities say they are now going to make all courts
accessible to the disabled, and ramps and so on will be built
to accommodate them.
The Ministry of Education has got into the act and is talking
about making adequate provision for disabled students. I hope
this latter statement is more than just talk.
I would have hoped that they would have responded to this
years ago when the plight of a St Georges College student
was made known in the newspaper.
The school was assisting the student, but there was no suggestion
that as a result, the ministry was sensitised to the difficulties
faced by disabled students.
I hope that this decade will evidence a complete revolution
in how we treat our physically and mentally-disabled.
I lived but one year in a society where the physically-disabled
were assured, as much as was humanly possible, of an equal
place in society.
This was in Minnesota, USA, where not only are the streets
designed to accommodate the flow of a wheelchair, but the
public buses as well.
At the bus stop, when a wheel- chair-bound person needed to
enter, a ramp would be lowered and he would wheel himself
in the bus.
He would then be assisted into a safe position in the bus
by the driver. Everyone would patiently wait.
It was the same in all public places. The courts had long
been that way, it seemed, but now the malls, restaurants,
movie theatres, libraries and large groceries are by law mandated
to make special provision for the disabled.
Parking is one such provision. Access is another, as are special
seating and other arrangements where necessary.
I remember a non-American colleague saying to me in 1999 that
it appeared to him that Minnesota had a higher percentage
of disabled persons that she had seen anywhere.
My response was that it was simply because the disabled got
out and about just as well as anyone that she was of that
In other words, in other societies it is because no accommodation
is made for our physically- disabled that they stay at home,
so we rarely see them.
We dont know what their numbers are, and we certainly
don't treat them as productive members of society which they
The States response to the recent issue with the disabled
is too restricted, too narrow. So we make the courts and even
the schools physically accessible and thats it?
What about the streets, the groceries, stores, places of entertainment
and other public places?
More significantly, perhaps, is need for the provision of
jobs, scholarship and education.
In short, where is the realisation that physical disability
has nothing to do with the ability of an individual to make
a sterling contribution to the country and even to the world?