By Senator Floyd Morris, PhD
“Nothing about us, without us” is the mantra for persons with disabilities globally. I have drawn for this quotation amidst a sensationally written article in the Gleaner on Sunday May 21, 2017, captioned: “Disappointing the disabled- UWI plans to make the Mona campus disabled friendly-going at snail’s pace.” In the article, the author sought to assess UWI Mona’s efforts to make the institution friendly for persons with disabilities and in this assessment, basically gave the institution a failing grade.
With the assessment of the writer, I have a fundamental disagreement. For us who are advocates and persons with disabilities, we treat a disability friendly institution much more than “physical” access to a building. There is a whole menu of things that must be considered. The fact is that over the years, from the commencement of the 1990s, individuals such as Professor Mark Figueroa; Dr. Michael Witter; Professor Marlene Hamilton; Professor Elsa Leo-Rhynie and Peter O’Sullivan, blazed a trail to make UWI Mona responsive to the needs of persons with disabilities.
The efforts of these individuals came about because a number of students with disabilities were matriculating for UWI and a mechanism had to be put in place to accommodate them. Within this context, a special committee was established in 1991 to facilitate and deal with issues concerning students with disabilities. I served on this committee between 1994 and 2001 and from 2009 to present. Emanating from this committee that was first chaired by Professor Mark Figueroa, a policy was prepared and adopted by the Finance and General Purpose Committee (F&GPC) of the UWI Mona on how to relate to students with disabilities in 1995: long before Jamaica created a national policy for persons with disabilities (2000) and the UN created the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD 2007). The policy has been a guide towards making UWI Mona a friendly institution for persons with disabilities and has been a work in progress since.
It is a fact that there are old buildings on the campus that are inaccessible to persons with “physical” disabilities and to be specific, those who are wheel-chair users. But all new buildings on the campus are being built with the necessary access features for persons with physical disabilities and wherever a need arises, modifications are being made to older buildings. “Physical access” is however, not the sum total of disability friendliness. Disability friendliness has to do with how you treat and relate to persons with disabilities; how you accommodate persons with disabilities; how you allow these individuals to participate in the environment and the level of acceptance and respect shown to these individuals. In all of these areas UWI Mona scores very big in the eyes of persons with disabilities and take it from an advocate who has been at the forefront of championing the cause of persons with disabilities not just in Jamaica but across the world for over 20 years. UWI Mona is a shining example for persons with disabilities.
When you look at the fact that the institution has done the following for persons with disabilities over the years:
Established a special facility, in conjunction with the Lions Club of Mona, to accommodate students with disabilities;
Secured modern equipment to assist students with disabilities in their school work;
Have special rooms where persons with disabilities are exclusively allowed to do their school work and sit exams;
Provide a special room where persons with disabilities can rest from time to time;
Provide volunteers to assist students with disabilities in their learning experience;
Establish a system to assist students with disabilities from the moment they get accepted to the institution to the point of graduation;
Made halls of residence accessible and inclusive for persons with disabilities;
Develop a progressive policy towards making the environment “physically” accessible to persons with disabilities;
Establish an entity, through the UWI Centre for Disability Studies, to drive research, training, public education and advocacy for persons with disabilities;
Employing persons with disabilities.
These are some of the things that the UWI Mona has been doing to make the environment friendly and responsive to the needs of persons with disabilities. Yes, we would want to see all the buildings at the institution accessible to persons with physical disabilities. But the institution has serious financial constraints and has been making efforts to deal with this through what we in the community of persons with disabilities call “progressive realization.” Meaning, the institution will become fully accessible over time. It is a work in progress and UWI Mona is way ahead of every single institution in Jamaica to accommodate persons with disabilities. This is why UWI Mona has been the institution of choice for persons with disabilities who want to pursue advance education. We have the largest cadre of students with disabilities studying at any tertiary institution in the country (over 40 registered) and if we were not doing somethings right, they would not be applying to the most progressive tertiary educational institution in the Caribbean. I challenge the writer and anyone to demonstrate to me, another institution in this country or the Caribbean that has put in place such measures to respond to the population of persons with disabilities. In fact, none of the other tertiary institutions in the country can point to anything that is being done to accommodate students with disabilities who are studying at their institution.
I appreciate a father who tells his child that he has financial constraints but whenever the child has a need, come to him and he will deal with it. In this context, UWI Mona has said to persons with disabilities who are studying and working there, whenever you have a challenge, come to us and we will work it out. This has been my experience with the UWI Mona and all the team at the institution. In my “eyes” UWI Mona has been an excellent father that has been responsive to persons with disabilities on the campus.
When the writer contacted me on what was taking place on the campus for persons with disabilities, I spoke to him about a number of issues but he has chosen to highlight the negatives. He asked me if I had any concerns. I told him yes but the institution has a mechanism for dealing with concerns and whenever they are brought to the attention of management, they are dealt with. I am therefore extremely disappointed with the article as this is not my experience at UWI Mona.
Senator Dr. Floyd Morris is the Director for the UWI Centre for Disability Studies and a longstanding advocate for persons with disabilities.