It's the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, but in Trinidad & Tobago, ‘barriers remain in place’

Laura Pierre-Escayg and Francis Escayg with their family. The couple founded the non-profit Cause An Effect, which aims to improve the quality of life for people with disabilities in Trinidad and Tobago. Photo by Rashmi Mathur – People of Trinidad & Tobago, courtesy the Escaygs, used with permission.

This post is written by Cause An Effect, a disability-focused non-governmental organisation geared towards the inclusion and protection of those with disabilities, as well as the building of sustainable assisted living and work communities where people who are moderately to severely disabled, can still productively contribute to wider society and feel fulfilled.

The theme for the 2022 International Day of Persons with Disabilities, observed annually on December 3, is “Transformative solutions for inclusive development: the role of innovation in fuelling an accessible and equitable world” — but for families of people with disabilities and people living with disabilities in Trinidad and Tobago, there isn’t much to celebrate.

Hardly a day goes by that we are not reminded of our disadvantaged position in society, our zero level, totem pole position — from access to early intervention, assessments and therapies, to education and everything else along the trajectory of life.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that 15 percent of the world’s population lives with disabilities, and this figure is rising due to population growth, medical advances and the ageing process. People living with disabilities are the world’s largest minority. In Trinidad and Tobago, that would be approximately 210,000 people living with some sort of disability.

Even though Trinidad and Tobago has signed on to various international treaties, including, in 2014, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, we still have not moved vigorously to meet the evolving needs of those living with disabilities.

Societal barriers remain in place.

The absence of a legislative framework to promote and protect the interests of those living with disabilities and their families creates occupational apartheid. With no form of redress available, the ability to maximise the human potential is compromised from as early as birth, and continues on a downward trajectory throughout the course of a lifetime, unless parents who have the financial means are able to privately access each needed service, which acts as a bridge leading to a more positive life trajectory for their child.

Impediments to progress include access to early intervention and disability-related healthcare services, special education services, employment opportunities, housing, transportation services and long-term care of the most vulnerable in our society.

To paraphrase Niccolò Machiavelli, there are three types of people in the world: Those who get it, those who get it when you explain it to them, and those who don’t get it. We believe that there is a grey bridge that connects all three categories; let’s call it the Care Bridge. We know. It’s not sexy. We’ve been trying to make disabilities sexy for the last nine years, but it seems like the stigma of “less than”, “those poor people” or the pacifist exclamation of “that is God’s work” is deeply entrenched in the human psyche as most people — even if they get it, or get it when you explain it to them — still don’t care enough to include people with visible and invisible disabilities into this rapidly evolving society in which we live.

The efforts of Lady Thelma Hochoy and [American social worker] Rose Miles to build the Lady Hochoy Home for children and people with disabilities in 1961, was a landmark intervention to remove children with intellectual disabilities from their previous accommodation into a more appropriate and nurturing space. In Trinidad and Tobago, prior to 1961, children with disabilities were housed alongside destitute adults, some of whom were mentally ill, at what is now known as the St. James Medical Complex on the outskirts of Port of Spain.

Now, 61 years later, even in the evolving face of medicine and science, and especially in light of new and improved approaches to treating people with intellectual disabilities and invisible disabilities, Trinidad and Tobago seems intent on maintaining its ad hoc approach to disability, one that does not ensure the full integration and participation of people who live with disabilities into society.

Our community does not need platitudes and empty acknowledgements on one designated day. We don’t need bureaucrats and technocrats with a clear disconnect from our lived experiences dictating to us what they are going to put in place for people living with disabilities. What we are desperately in need of is leadership that cares and understands that the quality of life experienced by people in a society depends on how its most vulnerable are treated.

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