Are you ready?
Have you started your preparations?
What about supplies, equipment, a plan?
We are at the beginning of what the meteorologists have been warning us as far back as last year is likely to be the most active hurricane season in recent years. Already five tropical systems have graduated to the status of storm and some even hurricane, complete with name, “personality quirks” and all that results in tremendous media attention.
Such is life in the tropics. Hurricanes are a guaranteed part of our lives, and particularly at this time of year – very much in focus. No sooner had Dennis wended his wet way from our shores, than Emily emerges, seemingly headed in the same direction.
Although this business of disaster preparedness is top of mind right now, and even though the Ministry, which I have the privilege and pleasure to lead, plays a critical part in relief efforts after every national disaster – natural or man-made, this is not my focus today.
I have simply selected a point of common reference to direct our focus on a more silent wind, yet one with the potential far more devastating consequences in the long run.
It is the swirling, turbulent wind of change.
The world is at the same time exciting and scary as technological developments are launched virtually on a daily basis. This has led to the ever-increasing tension between the creation of value through the application of human endeavor, and the retention of values, which nurture the human spirit.
While the debate continues as to whether technology is outstripping morality, we in the developing world, and particularly domiciled in small island states face the risk of missing the right balance. For whereas tradition is required to keep us stable and grounded, so too is technology, appropriately applied – our potential liberator.
There is one particular wind of change that seems to be sweeping right over us – one that no doubt will eventually claim several casualties if we do not bend like the bamboo – reorient our vision and embrace the change.
I speak of the attitude to those who are ‘different’ those whom we perhaps do not understand. The wind is blowing towards alliances and integration, away from antagonism and isolation – both in terms of technology and sociology.
On this the occasion of the first national employment fair for persons with disabilities, the core issue before us is self-evident.integration. This is the reason why the theme for Enable ’05 is: “Empowering Persons with Disabilities through an Integrated Workforce – how prepared are you?”
Employers – have you caught wind of the fact that many persons with disabilities worldwide are determining their destiny by a growing tide of confidence, consistency and with the assistance of computers?
Unemployed Jamaicans- have you come to terms with the power within you to withstand the ravages of the storms of life if you batten down with steely determination and stock up with the supplies of education and skills?
Change is necessary, but the winds of change have figuratively moved from tropical depressions to category 4 hurricanes over a generation, and the tools required to craft a shelter of independence through gainful employment are now far more complex than ever before.
Here in Jamaica, there are roughly two hundred and fifty thousand persons with one sort of disability or another. Neighbours, siblings, parents, co-workers who touch our lives every day, and a significant majority of whom make sterling contributions to the national development.
The year 1981 marked a watershed period in the lives of persons with disabilities, with its commemoration as the International Year of Disabled Persons (IYDP). This energized the community of persons with disabilities, and inspired some measure of change in the area of public policy and programming worldwide.
Progress notwithstanding, it was still another decade or so later that the governments of the world cued in to the need to crystallize the gains made by persons with disabilities through legislation.
Yet, even as more legislation began to develop, there remained vestiges of old mind sets with the underlying assumption that disabled persons were simply not able to exercise the same rights as their able-bodied colleagues. Even in the great, developed nations of the north, much of the legislation was drafted without consistent input from the disabled community.
Here in Jamaica, we are heartened by the efforts of all those diligent women and men in the disabilities sector who have poured their hearts, time and effort into helping us create a national policy for persons with disabilities, released in September 2000.
In keeping with the United Nations Draft Comprehensive and Integral International Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights and Dignity of Persons with Disabilities, policy development and legislative drafting in Jamaica has sought to be inclusive, every step of the way. Considerations also cut across the six designated areas of education, employment, housing, transportation, cultural & social life, and access to public places & services.
Ongoing qualitative research continues to reveal that those persons with disabilities in our society who have managed to transform their lives and to progress socially against the odds, have been those who opted to invest time, talent and treasure in education. And I mean education in its broadest sense, not just schooling.
Our own Minister of State is a shining example of the finest skill and acumen that our island has to offer, in spite of the fact that he ‘sees’ most things in a refreshing and unusual way. This very fair – Enable ’05 has its genesis in a consultation by Senator Morris with a group of confident, high performing persons with disabilities.
Yet, persons with disabilities continue to be disproportionately unemployed, and even among those with jobs, their true mettle remains to be tested by meaningful, high yielding assignments that can enable them to retain dignity and self-confidence. Our qualitative studies confirm that Jamaicans with disabilities spurn handouts in favour of equal opportunity to prove themselves on the job and to secure financial and social independence.
In fact there are many jobs for which persons with disabilities are particularly suited and have in fact racked up track records of excellence – e.g. many blind persons utilize the skill of enhanced and acute hearing to excel as telephone operators, broadcasters and musicians, while many deaf persons use their skills of observation to set new standards in a range of disciplines from accounting to art. The mathematical prowess, which often accompanies autism, is now legendary, and many who have lost the full use of limbs have spent long productive hours nurturing their mental acuity and time management.
Radical change is necessary to allow more persons with disabilities to contribute to the national regional and global economy through greater access to the workplace and yielding the benefits of such integration. In fact the integrated workplace is essential to our very survival, because it represents the breadth of skills required to address the world’s increasingly complex problems. To this end, your government has decided to concentrate its efforts in the disabilities sector on education and the development of modern, progressive legislation.
In terms of legislation, there are now two points of focus. First and foremost is the fine tuning of a National Disability Act, which missed another projected deadline with the end of the 2004-05 fiscal year.
I know that this seems long in coming to those not directly involved, but enacting brand new legislation, is a more laborious process than simply making amendments to existing laws. We are therefore bound by certain guidelines, including permission from cabinet to proceed to the drafting stage.
In the spirit of consultation to which your government is dedicated, I am happy to re-affirm that the feedback from all stakeholders, including other Ministries has been factored into the discussions at every step of the way. The next step is to debate a resolution in Parliament, enlisting the contribution of the Opposition and securing their approval of the final draft. This stage is now far advanced, putting us on track to meet our revised deadline of December 2005.
I must also assure you that it will be worth the wait, as we are dedicated to ensuring that our laws will compare favourably with any of the world’s leading democracies. The process has been informed by dialogue with jurisdictions such as Canada and the United Kingdom as benchmarks.And of course, we will ensure that the final draft is circulated within the disabled community for final review before sign-off and enactment.
Also on the National agenda is an amendment to the Road Traffic Act, to grant the deaf the right to drive. After consultations with the community of persons with disabilities the Ministry of Transport & Works instructed the Chief Parliamentary Council, the nation’s legislative drafters to amend the Road Traffic Act. This is now a fait accompli, and as Senator Morris indicated at yesterday’s press briefing on this fair, the Ministry of Transport and Works has now signed off on the revised legislation. We therefore expect that in the not too distant future the deaf will get the right to drive in Jamaica.
I wish to re-state for the record that the Government of Jamaica through the Ministry of Labour and Social Security remains fully committed to enabling and empowering the deaf to drive on the Jamaican roads.
As of now this facility is enjoyed by deaf tourists who enter the island with licenses legally issued at home. Surely it is an untenable miscarriage of justice to deny Jamaican nationals any privilege enjoyed by visitors to our island.
On the regional front, as we move steadily towards the realization of a single market and single economy in the Caribbean, the efforts in Jamaica have found resonance with our CARICOM counterparts as outlined in the Kingston declaration, crafted at the end of a regional conference on Disability just over a year ago.
The key imperative out of that confab was that each nation would develop a plan of action for persons with disabilities as a matter of urgency.
In this rests the promise for disabled Jamaicans to participate fully in the CSME and to exploit any opportunities across the region on a level playing field-opportunities to pursue more challenging assignments, expand horizons and significantly increase incomes.
Enable ’05 is a deposit on that commitment, and we continue to work with the Disabled Persons Organizations of the Caribbean (DPOC), which is housed at our North Street office. This is perhaps a very good time to pause to welcome Ancil Torrez and his team from the Torrez Foundation in Port of Spain Trinidad – regional representatives of Freedom Scientific.
As globalization moves apace, our standards cannot be parochial or even regional – we must be able to compete with ‘the best of the very best’ as we already do in sports. So on behalf of the government and people of Jamaica, it is a pleasure to welcome to Enable ’05 – Mr. Theodore ‘Ted’ Henter, President of Henter Math and inventor of JAWS [Job Access with Speech] software.
Also with us is William ‘Bill’ McCann – President of Dancing Dots – an organization dedicated to integrating the world of music composition to create a seamless flow of information between sighted and blind musicians.
This would be a good time to acknowledge the multi-level partnership which spawned Enable ’05. Today we are enjoying the benefits of private companies who have invested time and money, the community of persons with disabilities for candid ongoing feedback and guidance, other public sector entities such as the HEART-Trust-NTA, our lead sponsor, as well as civic groups and non governmental organizations.
It is often said that interdependence is a higher state of being than independence, so our mindset needs to be one of partnership between the able bodied Jamaicans and those with special needs.
It is only a united approach that will give us any leverage to withstand the turbulent winds of challenges and change. It is only through constant dialogue that we can develop appropriate and effective solutions.
The right to decent work is fundamental to any civilization. It is a basic human right, regardless of any physical or mental variance. The rights of the disabled, including this right to work, are fundamentally the same as human rights, so we share a common vision whether or not our abilities are manifested in the traditional ways.
Enable ’05 invites you to share the vision, so eloquently articulated in the 1948 United Nations Charter:
“To recognize the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family as the foundation for freedom, justice and peace in the world.”
May these two days of sharing, learning, networking and socializing serve as a significant next step in the realization of Jamaica’s true human potential by empowering the disabled through a truly integrated workforce.
Thank you, and may God bless you.
Are you ready?