Minister of Labour and Social Security, Hon. Derrick Kellier,says the Government is fully committed to improving the living conditions and quality of life of persons living with disabilities in Jamaica.
He said that in this vein, he will be working assiduously to ensure that the National Disability Act is passed in Parliament during the 2012/2013 legislative year. This, he said, will seek to provide the regulatory framework to protect and support the rights of persons with disabilities in all spheres, including education and training, health services, employment, access to the built environment and participation in public life.
Mr. Kellier was speaking at the opening of the 6th annual Special Needs Conference and Expo at the Jamaica Conference Centre, in downtown Kingston, on April 11.
The four-day conference is organised by the Nathan Ebanks Foundation (NEF) and endorsed by the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, the Jamaica Council for Persons with Disabilities (JCPD), and the Jamaica Paediatric Association.
The event, which is being held under the theme: ‘Building the Road to Independence for Children with Disabilities in Jamaica’, aims to increase awareness about the rights and access to social and economic services by persons with disabilities.
Mr. Kellier commended the NEF for the tremendous work it has been doing over the past six years, pointing out that the Ministry greatly values its partnerships with non-governmental organisations.
He said the Ministry will continue to work tirelessly, along with its private sector partners, to reduce poverty levels among persons in the disabled community by ensuring greater access to education, employment, and entrepreneurial opportunities, as well as income support where required.
The Minister informed that international statistics indicate that persons with disabilities are disproportionately represented among the poor and unemployed. World Bank estimates indicate that 20 per cent of the poorest people globally, have some kind of disability and are viewed as the most disadvantaged in communities.
“In addition, while about 386 million of the world’s working age population have some kind of disability, employers often assume that persons with disabilities are unable to work. As a consequence, unemployment rates are very high among persons with disabilities,” he said.
Mr. Kellier noted that the government is aware of the many challenges faced by persons with disabilities and continues to put in place programmes and facilities to improve their quality of life.
He said such programmes include the Programme for Advancement through Health and Education (PATH); the Early Stimulation Programme for the Education of Children with Disabilities; skills training programmes; the provision of grants to support entrepreneurial opportunities among persons with disabilities; affirmative action; and public education campaigns to create awareness on disability issues.
The Labour Minister admitted that he is aware that in spite of these and other initiatives, much work needs to be done, and as such, the Ministry has been working with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) to strengthen the registration system of the JCPD, in an effort to establish a more comprehensive data-base of persons with disabilities.
He said this effort will be complemented by the collection of socio-economic data to inform policies and programmes to improve their lives.
Mr. Kellier also noted that the government has placed renewed emphasis on increasing job prospects for disabled persons, promoting reasonable accommodation on the part of employers, and eliminating discriminatory hiring practices, which exclude persons with disabilities.
Meanwhile, Assistant Chief Executive Officer of Special Schools, Ministry of Education (MoE), June Hamilton, also commended the NEF for hosting the conference.
She noted that the Ministry welcomes such initiatives, as it is fully cognizant of the role private and non-governmental organisations play in providing education and training opportunities for persons working in the disability sector.
Miss Hamilton further said that the Ministry will continue to strengthen and expand its stakeholder partnerships in the interest of Jamaica’s children with "exceptionalities."
Social Work and Disability Advocate, Columbia University, USA, Marva Mariner, who gave the keynote address, said she was pleased to see the many improvements Jamaica has made over the years in terms of the policies, programmes and initiatives geared towards improving the lives of persons living with disabilities.
Miss Mariner, who is a deaf Jamaican living in the US, lauded the government and other private sector stakeholders for “the valuable inroads Jamaica has made."
The conference, which will be held from April 11 to 14, is expected to provide four days of knowledge sharing, networking, and information dissemination, aimed at enhancing the lives of members of the disabled community.
The event is also expected to bring children with disabilities together with special educators, therapists, nurses, psychologists, speech pathologists, disability specialists, pre-school teachers and other experts to network and share with each other. There will also be an exposition showcasing products and services for person with disabilities and special needs.
Sponsors of the initiative also include the Child Development Agency, Royal Bank (Jamaica) Limited and COK Sodality Co-operative Credit Union.
By Athaliah Reynolds-Baker, JIS Reporter