UNESCO joined a multi-stakeholder coalition to protect the rights of persons with disabilities in the Caribbean
Kingston- Advancing legislation for, with, and by persons with disabilities in the Caribbean is necessary to ensure fundamental freedoms are protected and human rights promoted, in line with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Therefore, the University of the West Indies Centre for Disability Studies (UWICDS) and the CARICOM Special Rapporteur on Disability, in collaboration with a multi-stakeholder coalition including UNESCO, the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Digicel Foundation, organized the Special Ministerial Conference for Specific Legislation for Persons with Disabilities in the Caribbean from 27-28 July 2021. The Conference, which was held virtually and on-site with a limited number of participants at the UWI Regional Headquarters, Mona Campus, Jamaica, explored developing a specific legislative model for persons with disabilities to protect and uphold their rights in the Caribbean societies.
Representing UNESCO with the mandate to promote inclusive and peaceful societies, Gabriela Ramos addressed the Conference virtually and expressed UNESCO’s readiness to support the Caribbean region to identify best policy practices and strengthen South-South Cooperation to promote human rights and address intersecting forms of discrimination against persons with disabilities.
Side-Event on the Impact of COVID-19 on Persons with Disabilities
In the framework of the Conference, UNESCO and UWICDS invited persons with disabilities from across the Caribbean to a public side-event to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on their lives and identify actions forward that could feed into inclusive recovery initiatives.
The discussion at the evening on 27 July 2021, led by Gloria Goffe, Executive Director of the Combined Disabilities Association in Jamaica, revealed societal challenges that hamper equal participation, such as barriers in accessing public services, including health care, education, and social protection.
Over 70 participants from various countries across the Caribbean were connected online and shared their perspectives and lived experiences during the pandemic.
Senator Dr Floyd Morris, CARICOM Special Rapporteur on Disability, explained that before COVID-19, the Caribbean was moving away from the charity-based model of disability, where people depend on others to sustain their lives. However, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, persons with disabilities are now once again relying on the support of family members and friends.
COVID-19 has put us in a precarious position and exposed the underbelly of persons with disabilities in the Caribbean.
Leroy Phillips also commented that persons with disabilities were put at a disadvantage. He said, “students with physical disabilities were among the hardest hit. Mobility issues and the lack of necessary technology to access education and health services widened the gap between persons with disabilities and the rest of society.”
The representative from the Trinidad and Tobago chapter at Disability International raised awareness on the importance of including mental health on the agenda when creating COVID-19 response strategies for persons with disabilities.
Two young participants indicated that the pandemic had strengthened their skills in using digital tools, which led to more opportunities to work remotely. However, Paralympic Taekwondo athlete Shauna-Kay Hines emphasized that many persons with disabilities are still discriminated against when seeking employment and are thus excluded from the world of work and the possibility of earning their income.
Strengthening the resilience of persons with disabilities and improving access to public services is crucial. This requires investment in inclusive education, training of health professionals, and building robust social protection systems as first steps towards removing discriminatory barriers that inhibit the full participation of persons with disabilities in Caribbean societies. Participants also highlighted the overall need to meaningfully include persons with disabilities in decision-making and the design of public policies comprising the COVID-19 recovery process. In closing the special ministerial Conference on Wednesday, 28 July, Senator Dr Floyd Morris announced the outcomes of the Special Ministerial Conference.
- A five-year timeframe for all countries within the Caribbean sub-region to develop specific legislation to protect the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities;
- A three-year timeframe for countries that already have specific legislation, to amend such laws to capture essential elements of the template that does not exist in their current legislation;
- To use the Regional Disability Index managed by the UWICDS to monitor the implementation of inclusive policies and disability legislation in Caribbean countries.
- Strengthening capacities of institutions, civil society, and non-governmental organizations to advocate for persons with disabilities and promote legislation for persons with disabilities.
The draft legislation document will be updated based on the outcomes during the Conference and made available to the public.
UNESCO and UWICDS plan to conduct a series of training in 2021 to strengthen capacities on the rights of persons with disabilities and engage youth and media houses to advocate for disability inclusion across the Caribbean.