“I have no legs, but I still have feelings. I cannot see, but I think all the time. Although I’m deaf, I still want to communicate. Why do people see me as useless, thoughtless, talkless, when I am as capable as any for thoughts about our world?”
These are the words of a poem written by 14-year-old Coralie Severs from the United Kingdom.
Her poem speaks for millions of children and adults worldwide, who live with disabilities every day. Many face discrimination. Their abilities are overlooked, and their capacities underestimated. They don’t get the education and health care they need and they are excluded, oftentimes inadvertently, from many community activities.
But children and adults with disabilities have the same rights as everyone else; their prerogatives to express themselves are the same as everyone else’s. Even though they may have difficulty seeing, hearing, walking or remembering, they too have dreams, hopes and ideas that they want to share with their community.
Since 1982, the United Nations has observed 3 December as the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. One may think this observance is for those with disabilities. And it is: the day focuses on how recognising the rights of persons with disabilities benefits every aspect of our political, social, economic and cultural lives.
But it equally is about waking up those of us who, either consciously or unconsciously, have the “disability” of seeing persons with certain physical or mental conditions as unable to contribute positively to our society.
Our local theme for 2010, It’s About Ability, reflects this; and I urge you to think about exactly what these three words mean.
Simply put, we are all different, and as such have different levels of ability. So if we just take time to think, we easily can rattle off a long list of persons with disabilities, who have risen above their challenges to invent, entertain and inspire. These include:
Author Helen Keller
Singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder
Artist Claude Monet
Scientists like Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein
Actors like Michael J. Fox, Christopher Reeve and Tom Cruise
Locally, we have our own differently-abled high achievers such as swimmers like Andrew Smilley and sprinter Cindy Whittaker. Not to mention our Special Olympics football team that recently won gold in the Special Olympics Jamaica Invitational Football Competition.
Consequently, the Ministry of Education, Training and Employment is ensuring that the talents within our intellectually and physically challenged citizens are nurtured and encouraged, and that their basic human rights are protected.
An advisory body called the Steering Committee for Persons with Disabilities was formed in 2007 with this objective. Its members are identifying gaps in service provisions for these citizens and promoting public awareness and acceptance of persons with disabilities in our community. Already they have spearheaded an extensive review of current laws affecting persons with disabilities, and have made recommendations for their reform.
While this committee continues its important work, I urge everyone to also do their part in protecting and ensuring the rights of persons living with disabilities. This really isn’t hard to do.
Simple actions, such as leaving disabled parking spots for those who really need them; educating ourselves about the needs of persons with disabilities; or taking a little more time, if needed, when working or socialising with physically and mentally challenged citizens, can help everyone contribute in our society.
All we need to do is to keep in mind that persons with disabilities have the right to equality and non-discrimination. They have the right to accessibility, employment, health and rehabilitation. They also have the right to life, liberty and security like everyone else.
In the Cayman Islands, and around the world, International Day for Persons with Disabilities promotes an attitude of inclusion, rather than one of exclusion. I ask every person in our community to challenge themselves, to think and act in a way that recognises the rights of persons living with disabilities.
Minister of Education, Training and Employment