Dr Bephyer Parey, an educator and researcher at the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies (SALISES) at UWI, St Augustine believes greater effort should be made towards people with disabilities in TT. She called for a re-evaluation of the complaint process to the of Equal Opportunity Commission and adjustments to the Equal Opportunity Act.
Parey, also chair of the Disability Studies Research Cluster, was speaking at virtual forum by SALISES titled Equal Opportunity for Persons with Disabilities in Trinidad and Tobago: Challenges and Recommendations on Thursday morning.
She said her research was based on the question: “Does the existing legislative framework in TT support equal opportunity and the achievement of fundamental human rights for people with disabilities?”
She said there were 105 complaints made by people with disabilities from 2010-2021, with more being made by women than men.
A total of 72 per cent of those complaints were made by people between ages 18 and 64.
“The disability types included physical, mental, sensory, intellectual, and multiple, and approximately a quarter of the complainants listed a health condition,” she said.
She added that the Equal Opportunities Act separates discrimination into the categories of education, employment, good and services and accommodation.
“Most of the complaints were lodged regarding employment issues, followed by goods and services, education, and then (accommodation)”
She said some complaints included a parent whose child was denied enrolment into three different primary schools, and an adult who had restrictions on their driver’s licence.
She said of all the complaints, 58 per cent were withdrawn by the complainant because they were ongoing or had unclear outcomes.
“Most complaints were closed by the Equal Opportunity Commission with no further action required by the target organisation of the complaint.
“…Only 30 per cent of the cases were referred for conciliation or to the tribunal.”
She continued, “Cases were closed for several reasons such as procedural errors and involvement of external agencies or policies. Additionally, some of the cases fell outside the jurisdiction of the Equal Opportunity Commission. And in some, the conclusion was that no discrimination took place. And then lastly, others – those were closed at the request of the complainant.”
She said the Equal Opportunity Act does not support equal opportunity since it focuses on discrimination.
“And we saw from the findings, persons with disabilities certainly do not have equal opportunity. And more importantly, related to the second part of the question, the Equal Opportunity lens cannot guarantee achievement of human rights.”
She then gave three recommendations. The first is about the complaint process.
She said the six-month period to file complaints, with restrictions of exceptional circumstances, should be reconsidered.
“These criteria mean that there is no redress for persons with disabilities outside this time window, and some cases will also closed due to insufficient information provided by the complainant without attempt to contact them.”
She said there are many reasons for delays in filing cases or lack of a timely response, like the intensity of the trauma and extra costs.
“…And there is evidence that persons with disabilities face extra costs when accessing services.”
“So cases such as a mal-administration or even harassment are not considered within the jurisdiction of the act.
“There is a distinction between formal discrimination which relates to organisational practices and policies and interpersonal discrimination, which relates to informal interaction such as inappropriate jokes, rumours or other negative verbal or non-verbal behaviour.”
From a legal standpoint, she said, discrimination is an organisational process or quality that affects members of protected groups differently from other groups.
She said while the act addresses offensive behaviour, disability is not of protected status, which she would like to see an “immediate adjustment” to.
“An additional consideration for updating the national legislation includes how protection may extend to persons who are perceived to have a disability, even if they do not disclose from our review of the files, and understandably so, because of the stigma associated with disability in TT, persons are hesitant about disclosure, so some measures to protect persons with disabilities who are reluctant to disclose is needed.”
She added that the act mentioning reasonable workplace accommodation is not enough and more guidance is needed.
“The injustices therefore will remain hidden and unaddressed until the legislative framework is altered to emulate international human rights principles and it protections for the rights of all citizens. Just to reiterate, the Equal Opportunity lens is inapplicable and legislation should adopt an equality of well-being approach, and other thoughts.”