Senator Floyd Morris, PhD

Persons with disabilities are an integral part of any society. However, they have not been treated with the level of respect and dignity that they should. After years of advances, many still view these individuals as persons who should be confined to their homes or be placed in infirmaries. They are still being viewed as individuals who should be on welfare rather than being involved with gainful employment.

As a country, we have a number of persons with disabilities who have demonstrated that they have the capacity to perform and have excelled in their sphere of professional engagement. In this article, I will demonstrate that persons with disabilities have the ability to be engaged in the productive capacity of the country. We have a number of individuals who have shown this to Jamaica and they will be highlighted in this article.

One of the most celebrated persons with disabilities in Jamaica is Wilbert Williams. Wilbert Williams is a blind person who grew up at the Salvation Army School for the Blind. He was among the first set of blind students to enter into the traditional high schools and Excelsior High played an indelible role in his educational sojourn. Wilbert first studied physiotherapy at the Royal National Institute for the Blind School of Physiotherapy (RNIBSP) and he practiced his craft at the Mona Rehabilitation Centre, alongside Professor John Golding for years. Wilbert Williams later went to the University of the West Indies (UWI) to pursue a Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) in Management Studies. He then became the Executive Director of Abilities Foundation where he served until his retirement. Wilbert was the consummate professional who blazed a trail of excellence in all of his professional endeavours. He was a true ambassador for persons with disabilities in Jamaica.

Sarah Newland-Martin is another outstanding person with a disability that has excelled in Jamaica. Sarah was abandoned by her parents because of her disability. She grew up at the Mona Rehabilitation Centre under the guidance of the venerable Sir John Golding. Sarah is one of the most outstanding para-Olympians, distinguishing herself in the field of swimming. She has won numerous medals for Jamaica. She has the notoriety of being the first person with a disability to swimming the entire Kingston Harbour; and this she did without any legs.

Over the past 30 years, Sarah Newland-Martin has dedicated her life to improving the social conditions of young men. She is the Executive Director for the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). She is positively impacting thousands of vulnerable youths in Jamaica. She has been a long-standing and outstanding advocate for persons with disabilities in Jamaica.

Dr. Ikswell Douglas is the first person with a disability to receive a PhD at the UWI. He also attended the Salvation Army School for the Blind, then Sam Sharpe Teacher’s College and the UWI. At the UWI he pursued a Bachelor in Education (B.Ed.) and a Master of Science (M.Sc.) in Human Resource Development. He then completed a PhD in Education Studies.

Dr. Douglas worked in the Ministry of Education for years and rose to the rank of Assistant Chief Education Officer in that Ministry. He is a sort after public speaker as his oratorical skills are among the best within the Caribbean.

Monica Bartley is another outstanding Jamaican who has a disability. Despite Monica’s physical disability, it never prevented her from excelling academically and professionally. Monica attended Excelsior High School and then the UWI where she did a B.Sc. in Statistics. Monica joined the staff at the Statistical Institute of Jamaica (STATIN) where she ultimately became a Director of this national institution. Monica Bartley was also Chairman for the Combined Disabilities Association (CDA), the grass root organization that has been advocating for the rights of persons with disabilities in Jamaica.

Gloria Goffe is also an outstanding person with disability who has excelled in her profession and academics. She attended the Salvation Army School for the Blind and then did professional examinations and became a Certified Professional Secretary (CPS). She worked as a Secretary at Deloit and Touche. Gloria did further studies at the UWI where she completed and has a B. Sc. In Psychology and a M.Sc. in Human Resource Development. She is currently the Executive Director of the Combined Disabilities Association and is also a very strong and dynamic advocate for persons with disabilities in Jamaica.

Dena Gaye Weller is a young person with a disability that has done extremely well. She has a physical disability and is a graduate of Hampton High School. Dena completed a Bachelor of Science in Psychology at UWI. Upon graduating from UWI, Dena worked as a teacher. She then engaged in self-employment where she does work on-line for an overseas agent. She was adjudged as one of the best on-line workers by her company. She recently represented Jamaica at the Para-Olympics in Brazil.

As a blind person myself, I have been extremely fortunate to get a very good education and at the same time, be employed. After attending St. Mary High School where I developed my sight problem, I became totally blind in 1989. At the time, there were deep questions among my family and members of the community as to why this happened to me and what of my future. God has blessed me and this is manifested in how successful I have been at transforming my personal life through investing in education. The sacrifices made at the Jamaica Society for the Blind; Mico Evening College and the UWI; have all paid off. I have accomplished a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) in communication; a Master of Philosophy in Government and completed a PhD in Government. These educational achievements contributed to me becoming a Senator in the Jamaican Parliament; Minister of State in the Ministry of Labour and Social Security and President of the Jamaican Senate. It has also contributed to me owning and operating my own business.

I have highlighted a few of the most successful persons with disabilities in Jamaica as a means of demonstrating that these individuals can perform once given the opportunities. They have performed against tremendous odds and have been contributing exponentially to national development. Notwithstanding these outstanding accomplishments and performances by persons with disabilities, under trying circumstances, we are not adequately recognized as individuals who have much to contribute to the society. The vast majority of persons with disabilities are not accessing the Jamaican Education System. Over 90% of this population is unemployed. The population of persons with disabilities is not able to go about their legitimate business because public facilities are inaccessible to them. The fundamental question is what more can we do? What more can we who have had the privilege of education and employment do to convince members of the society that persons with disabilities do have the capacity to perform and contribute to the progressive agenda of the country?

The previous administration enacted legislation to protect persons with disabilities against discrimination in the society and to provide for their development through access to social services. Those of us, who have benefitted from education and have been exposed to employment, must continue to advocate for the transformation of the lives of these individuals. We must continue to be ambassadors for the members of this vulnerable community. At the same time, members of the broader society must engage in a radical shift in their attitudes towards these individuals. They must realize that these individuals have the capacity to perform and must be given the opportunity to do so. They must treat these individuals as human beings who might have different biological impairments but are fully able to contribute to the productive capacity of the country. Most importantly, members of the society must understand that disability respects no one and that you can be able-bodied today and disabled tomorrow. The fundamental issue therefore; is for us to treat persons with disabilities with the greatest of respect and the way they would want to be treated if they developed a disability.

Floyd Morris is an Opposition Senator and the Director of the UWI Centre for Disability Studies

E-mail: morrisfloyd@gmail.com