One of the most difficult challenges facing Jamaicans with disabilities is finding employment, and the Ministry of Labour and Social Security is determined to help them overcome this hurdle by funding projects that make them less dependent.
Approximately 10 per cent of the population, or close to 300,000 Jamaicans, have a disability. However, only a small fraction are employed in the formal sector.
Minister of State in the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, Hon Andrew Gallimore, agrees that persons with disabilities have been facing a “serious uphill battle” and have been living on the margins of society, but says that the Government is committed to changing this.
To start the change, the Government set aside $15 million in the 2008/09 budget to finance a programme geared towards their economic empowerment. The success the initiative achieved in its first year, has encouraged the Government to allocate an additional $12.8 million to be dispersed in 2009/10.
Executive Director of the Jamaica Council for Persons with Disabilities (JCPD), Ransford Wright, says the process started when the lead agencies and associations for persons with disabilities met Prime Minister the Hon. Bruce Golding in February, 2008. They made a submission, requesting funding for those who are going through hard times in the current economic crisis. The Prime Minister listened to their arguments, and asked the Ministry of Labour and Social Security to budget $15 million to support them.
Mr. Gallimore said that $5 million of the amount went into adaptive aids, including glasses, hearing aids and prosthesis.
“Whatever sort of aid would assist persons with disabilities to fully integrate themselves into society, and to participate in a more meaningful way in society; anything that would help them to compensate for the challenges they face,” he explained.
The other $10 million was used for economic enablement grants, to help the disabled set up businesses, be more independent and be able to generate some cash flow in a small business activity.
This financial year, 2009/2010, an additional $10 million dollars is budgeted for economic empowerment of the disabled, while another $2.8 million is to be spent on acquiring adaptive aids, making a total of $12.8 million to be spent in the programme this financial year.
The Ministry says that, despite the slight reduction, this year’s allocation will be stretched to reach as many persons with disabilities, as possible.
“We are trying to stretch that so that everybody who applied last year will be dealt with, plus the new people who are applying this year,” Chairperson of the sub-committee which considers the applications Mrs. Evelyn Craig-Brown.
Participants in an Economic Empowerment Seminar in August, at the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, North Street, Kingston. The seminar was held to assist persons with disabilities who received grants under the Programme in managing the funds.
Approximately 300 persons have benefitted under the programme. Several have gone into CD sales, metal fabrication and welding, floral arrangement, computer graphic design, wine manufacturing, fishing, garment construction, chicken rearing, landscaping and grocery retailing. The money provided under the programme is a grant, which means persons are not required to repay the funds.
Mr. Gallimore stresses that many persons with disabilities are fiercely independent and are not seeking charity, but need an opportunity to exercise their independent spirit.
This is the case with Kingston resident, Roy Powell, who always wanted to operate an internet cafe, but didn’t have the capital to purchase the computers. When he heard about the possibility of a grant under the Ministry’s Economic Empowerment Programme, he jumped at the opportunity and submitted his proposal to the JCPD.
There is already a demand for these services at Mr. Powell’s cafe, as a number of high school students in the community have been enquiring about surfing the net and getting schoolwork printed. His plans for the expansion of the business include a modification of his verandah, which will become the actual business place. At the moment, he operates from his living room.
Another of the beneficiaries is Portland farmer, Kenrick Patterson, who in December last year received a grant to go into rearing chickens.
“I received $90,000. I bought 200 chicks, a deep freeze and some tarpaulins to put around the coop,” he details.
“Sanitation is paramount for me with the chickens, because I keep the coop as clean as possible. I rake my litter once or twice per day. The water that I give them is of the quality that I would drink myself,” he adds.
Listening to him describe how he cares his chickens, one would never guess that as a child Mr. Patterson was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, and is now completely blind. He works alone on his farm, but on slaughtering days he gets help from two sisters and a friend.
Expressing gratitude for the assistance he has received under the Programme, he says he will do all he can to keep the business afloat.
Mr. Wright says that in order to be considered for assistance under the programme, persons must be registered with the JCPD. Prospective recipients must also be registered as an NIS contributor, providing that they are below the age of retirement.
“The person has to show some inclination, or some aptitude towards the business they are requesting. For example, give some form of reason for entering such a business, and to what extent that business would assist such a person later in life. The person has to show willingness to enter some form of relationship with a credit union, PC bank or a bank,” Mr. Wright explains.
For Vinette Green and Christine Bennett, both mothers, the Economic Empowerment Programme is more than just an opportunity to start a business and take care of themselves and their families. The programme also gives them an opportunity to become role models for other disabled persons.
The wheelchair-bound Ms. Green used her $35,000 to start selling ice cream at the Sir John Golding Rehabilitation Centre, in Kingston. She also has a part-time job at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona where she keeps laboratory apparatuses, such as test tubes, clean.
She has a daughter, who is also disabled, and hopes her efforts will show her daughter how to be independent with a disability.
“Because you are disabled, people look down on you like you begging. But, I am an ambitious person. Though my daughter is disabled, I want her to be independent like me,” she says.
Mrs. Bennett received $50,000 dollars from the fund and began selling clothes in business places in Half-Way Tree, Kingston, at the beginning of summer. Already she has deposited double that amount in her savings account while her business is still thriving.
Fiercely independent, Mrs. Bennett is wary of being seen as a charity case, or as being different. She even refuses to wear a hearing aid, though she is partially deaf.
She has four sons, aged 10-19 years. She is very excited to see her sons off to school when the academic year begins, but she is being careful not to burden her new business with these expenses. She says she will be seeking other avenues to take care of back-to-school expenses, so her business can continue to be a success and her sons see her as an example.
Everette Armstrong received $25, 000 to begin his retail phone card business. However, realising that the returns on selling phone cards are minimal, he decided to sell his artwork, along with his phone cards.
“I sell them to sponsors that come to the Golden Age Home, like Food for the Poor people dem, and I have another person who comes from Ocho Rios St. Ann and purchase some…since week I sell US$50 worth of artwork,” he shares.
To help the recipients of the grants, the Ministry of Labour and Social Security is also holding several economic empowerment seminars, across the island. Seminars have been held in Clarendon, Portland and Kingston, with another planned for St Elizabeth in September.
Mr. Gallimore explains that the seminars are being held to ensure that recipients of the grants are able to learn basic skills, which can help them to better manage their businesses.