DR RADICA MAHASE
ON August 31, 1962, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Dr Eric Williams, in his speech commemoratiing Independence, said, “Democracy means recognition of the rights of others. Democracy means equality of opportunity for all in education, in the public service, and in private employment... Democracy means the protection of the weak against the strong…Democracy means responsibility of the government to its citizens...”
Fifty-eight years later, we have to question if TT is really and truly a democratic country in which everyone "finds an equal place."
When we look at governments’ attitudes towards people with special needs from 1962 until today, is there any real display of democracy according to Williams’ definition?
Sure, there is the casual reference to people with disabilities when we celebrate Autism Awareness Day, Down Syndrome Day, International Day of Persons with Disabilities and all the other official days designated by the UN, but other than these "special occasions" government’s vocabulary doesn’t regularly seem to include words like "special needs" or "disability."
Ironically, since Independence we have signed (1990) and ratified (1991) the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child; we have developed a National Policy on Persons with Disabilities (2005, with revisions in 2019); and we have an Inclusive Education Policy (2010). Every so often government throws out words such as "inclusion" and "accessibility." On a good day we might even hear talk about opportunities for people with disabilities.
But is there any real interest in the special needs population in TT?
We have some very good policies, at least on paper. For example, the National Policy on Person with Disabilities includes sections on access to employment, information and communication and education and training for people with disabilities.
The Inclusive Education Policy speaks about the Ministry of Education’s commitment to “a seamless education system of which inclusive education is a major component. It shall provide support and services to all learners by taking appropriate steps to make education available, accessible acceptable and adaptable.”
The problem therefore is not the lack of policies; the problem is the lack of implementation of these policies. The problem is government’s inability to successfully develop and implement action plans. The problem is government’s lethargic approach to effecting real changes and its uncaring attitude towards people with special needs.
And in this case, government refers to all TT governments, past and present, as no government has shown any great desire to extend Williams’s concept of democracy to people with disabilities, in a manner that would make life for them in TT any more fulfilling, or would give them opportunities to exist in better situations.
And why is it that the government has been able to only pay lip service to the special needs population for the past 58 years? Why is it that government gets by, year after year, without effecting any real changes that will empower people with disabilities and help them to live more fulfilling lives?
The answer is partly because the government knows that it can disregard people with disabilities and yet continue to exist. Politicians know that the special needs population is numerically insignificant in terms of affecting their being voted into power.
Maybe also the government doesn’t feel sufficiently embarrassed by disability advocates and non-governmental organisations to make real changes. While NGOs advocate for change, their voices are still not loud enough for government to feel pressure into making real changes.
Also, as the saying goes, "when it hits home ,only then people does care." Maybe government doesn’t really care about people with disability because those in government positions don’t really interact with people with disabilities on a daily basis, within their homes. Maybe, in cases where those in our leadership do have relatives with disabilities, they can afford a higher level of access to private schools, therapies and so on.
We enter 2021 wondering if anything might change; maybe, just maybe, this year the government might put a more concerted focus on the special-needs population.
Williams noted in his Independence speech that: “That democracy is but a hollow mockery and a gigantic fraud which is based on a ruling group's domination (of) slaves or helots or
fellaheen or second-class citizens or showing intolerance to others because of considerations of race, colour, creed, national origin, previous conditions of servitude or other irrationality.”
If people with disabilities continue to be treated as second-class citizens, then democracy in TT is indeed a "hollow mockery."
Dr Radica Mahase is the founder/director of Support Autism T&T