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Valuing Diversity: Focusing on the Ability in Disability

September 29 2014 - by Carole Houlihan, CLP's Gender Specialist

On September 15, 2014, Guyana became the 150th nation to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  (Ratification is an act by which a state agrees to be legally bound by the terms of the convention.)  

While all Caribbean countries have signed the Convention and signalled their preliminary endorsement of the document adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 2006, several have not yet ratified it.

However, the Charter of Civil Society for the Caribbean Community (Article XIV - Rights of Disabled Persons) specifies that every disabled person has…the right:

  • Not to be discriminated against on the basis of his or her disability;
  • To equal opportunities in all fields of endeavour and to be allowed to develop his or her full potential; 
  • To respect for his or her human dignity so as to enjoy a life as normal and full as possible. 

Women and men with disabilities include people of all ages who live in urban and rural areas and have different personalities, abilities, aspirations and desires.  The World Bank estimates that the disabled account for approximately 10 percent of the population in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC).[1] 

A disability can be either permanent (e.g. a hearing or mobility impairment) or temporary. A disability can also be visible or invisible (e.g. a mental illness). But the disability is less important than the person’s knowledge, skills and general abilities when it comes to performing a job. People with disabilities often have the skills and competencies needed in your organization yet they are often under-employed.

In the workplace, disabled women and men face many obstacles including:  

  • Negative attitudes;
  • Unequal access to education and training;
  • Inaccessible buildings;
  • Lack of accessible information;
  • Inaccessible transport;
  • Lack of assistive devices and support services;
  • Low self-esteem and over-protective families.

 A leader creates an inclusive and supportive workplace by:

  • Leading by example with a clear commitment from the top that diversity is important;
  • Adopting policies and procedures to support people with disabilities;  
  • Promoting (both internally and externally) the organization's commitment;
  • Providing training and awareness in the workplace.

A colleague from the Caribbean shared a cautionary tale about the importance of adapting existing policies and procedures and providing training and awareness to all members of staff as part of a comprehensive and effective strategy for integrating persons with disabilities into the workplace.  While the necessary arrangements were made to ensure that the workspace and the bathroom facilities were adapted to suit the needs of a new employee who was a paraplegic, the company’s safety procedures were not taken into consideration.  Shortly thereafter, the country experienced an earthquake.  To my colleague’s chagrin, when the building was evacuated, it became apparent that no provisions had been made to ensure the safe evacuation of the worker who was confined to a wheelchair…

The moral of this story is that, in addition to good intentions, in order to build an inclusive environment that is welcoming and safe for men and women regardless of disability, you need a comprehensive strategy which takes into consideration matters such as required changes work areas, technological and/or procedural modifications, making information accessible in alternate formats or making changes to tasks or working hours. An excellent Caribbean resource is Assisting Disabled Persons In Finding Employment: A Practical Guide by Robert Heron and Barbara Murray (ILO) 2003. Another useful source of information and guidance is your national association for persons with disabilities. 

In most countries, government and the public sector lead the way in meeting the employment and service needs of disabled people. Is that the case in your country?

  •  How well does your organization support the abilities of employees?   
  • Does your workforce reflect the diverse population it serves?
  • What can you do—personally—to demonstrate your leadership?
  • Has your country ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities?