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Sunday 18 August 2019
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On becoming a more inclusive society


YESTERDAY was commemorated as International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Several activities would have occurred throughout the day in diverse spaces aimed at highlighting the challenges and successes of individuals with disabilities, and this is all well and good.

However, as a wider society we need to move beyond highlighting these issues on days specially designated to bring focus to them. Rather, the issue of inclusion must become a part of an on-going national dialogue about the ways in which we can all work together to make our society one that is all-inclusive – that is, one in which all citizens (at-risk, living in poverty, living with disabilities or other special needs, marginalised or otherwise disenfranchised) are given the opportunity to feel a sense of belonging and are empowered to live a decent life.

This year marks the 26th anniversary of this United Nations-led commemoration of International Day of Persons with Disabilities. The theme, “Empowering persons with disabilities and ensuring inclusiveness and equality,” is reflective of the integrating thread of inclusion that runs through the sustainable development goals accepted by nations of the world for the 15-year period 2016-2030.

In fact, according to the UN, “this theme focuses on empowering persons with disabilities for the inclusive, equitable and sustainable development envisaged in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”

The question that naturally arises out of this theme is, “How do we do this?” Before we can answer this question we will have to first recognise the magnitude of the problem, but we cannot stop there. Having acknowledged what will be required to go forward, we will then have to develop a realistic action plan comprised of short, medium and long-term goals with clear indicators that we are making progress to achieving those.

Make no mistake that this will be challenging; however, if we continue to ignore the needs of these citizens, the result may be worse than if we do all that is in our power to make life better for everyone including those citizens who live with disabilities.

The goal for an inclusive society is to “leave no one behind,” which is characterised by the fundamental principle of dignity of an individual person and equality among all. While an ambitious endeavour, this is not impossible. It requires the full and equal participation of people with disabilities in all spheres of society and the creation of enabling environments by, for and with people with disabilities.

What steps have been taken to date in Trinidad and Tobago to move towards a more inclusive society? On September 27, 2007, TT signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and subsequently ratified it on June 21, 2015. However, while in a number of jurisdictions ratification often signals intent to make the necessary legislative changes to support implementation of the principles and rights proposed in the convention, in TT it is often more reflective of empty political rhetoric.

Where is the evidence of collaboration with the community of people with disabilities to make it a reality? Where is the evidence of advocacy and action within the legislature to make the convention a reality? Like with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the CRPD, it seems, is another example of spinning a good tale while being empty on action.

Beyond the CRPD, the Ministry of Social Development has developed a National Policy on Disabilities. While this may be all well and good, policy needs to be actively pursued to inform provisions. Provisions should be supported by appropriate and relevant legislation for successful implementation. Legislation must be consistently and continuously enacted.

This is not outside of our purview to achieve. What we need is political will, and a genuine concern for all citizens, not an Animal Farm mentality of “all men are equal, but some men are more equal than others.” People with disabilities are citizens with rights and needs as much of those of us who are “typically” developing. Planning for national development must, of necessity, include provisions for these potentially vulnerable citizens.

The National Development Plan identifies social justice as one of the pillars and goals to be achieved. There can be no social justice in a non-inclusive society. As we strive towards building a sustainable society, all citizens’ needs must form a part of the tapestry of developmental goals and plans.

We can do this! Remember, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

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