Sunday 29th july, 2007

Dana Seetahal
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Respect disabled

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 necessary.

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 the differently-abled.

This appears not to have been the case. More than a year ago, I wrote in my column an article called The disabled deserve respect.

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.

Justice denied

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 say—some might opine.

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 court.

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 George’s 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.

Special provisions

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 opinion.

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 don’t know what their numbers are, and we certainly don't treat them as productive members of society which they could be.

The State’s 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 that’s 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?

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