Sociologist, activist, local councillor, drummer from Malta

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Disability and social justice

Michael Briguglio

The Times 16 February 2013

As a party that believes in equa­lity, social justice and social in­clusion, Alter­nattiva Demokra­tika feels privileged to have learned so much from persons and organisations working in the field of disability.

Despite the increased awareness on the rights of persons with disability, ignorance still persists on this issue. For example, people with disability should not be seen as one homogenous group. There are various degrees and types of disability, from the physical to the intellectual and such identities intersect with other identities that each individual has such as gender, class, sexuality, age, ethnicity and religious beliefs.

If one translates this to social policy, one would realise that, while all persons with disability should have their rights guaranteed, one cannot adopt one-size-fits-all policies. For example, some people with disability can enter the world of employment, others cannot. Social policy should ensure social justice both by providing equal opportunities for all people with disability (such as full access to all public spaces, both governmental and commercial) but also by guaranteeing equal outcomes. In this respect, the State should ensure that those persons who, for example, cannot work are still guaranteed a decent life through the welfare state.

It is for this reason that AD is proposing that the disability pension, which amounts to 55 per cent of the minimum wage, should be reviewed to permit a decent quality of life, irrispective of whether one can enter employment.

As regards employment itself, the principle of affirmative action in favour of people with disability in the world of work should be enforced. In Malta, the inactivity rate among persons with disability is very high. This means wasted potential, poverty risk and lack of opportunity for an independent life.

Similarly, direct payment and personal assistant schemes should be introduced so that people with disability can have access to public funds without facing uncalled for bureaucratic hurdles. Besides, social assistance for carers should be extended to parents or official guardians of persons with disability.

The full integration of persons with disability in community life should also be prioritised. In this regard, we support the development of supported independent living for those persons with disability who wish to live autonomously, co-habit, marry, and/or raise a family in the community. We also support family planning facilities for persons with intellectual disability, to ensure their sexual rights.

Along the same lines, day centre services should encourage activity, training and independence, with the ultimate goal of empowering each individual according to his/her own circumstance.

As regards health itself, public services related to diagnosis, equipment, products and services for persons with disability – including medicinal products – should be universally accessible and avoid unnecessary delays. A health-related issue given priority by AD has to do with the rights of people with ME (Myalgic Encepha­lomyelitis) and FB (Fybromalgia) and other disabilities that are not yet recognised by the State. For the past years, AD has been demanding that social policy structures should recognise the rights of such persons with respect to access to social and health services, the latter also including cross-border care.

We are also calling for appropriate education and training in the medical field for professionals to be more acquainted on the needs of such persons.

As regards education, AD notes the progress registered especially in the primary sector through inclusive educational policies. However, we feel that more improvement is required to ensure the rights of students with disability. It is unfortunate that the electoral ‘war of the tablets’ by the Nationalist and Labour parties is being given more importance in the public sphere than more pressing educational issues.

In this regard, we insist that all schools should be completely accessible to students or teachers with physical disability. We also note the need for improvement, especially in the secondary and post-secondary sectors for persons with different levels of intellectual disability.

Another pressing educational issue is the need to have learning support assistants available to all students who need their services, including those whose current LSAs are temporarily unavailable – such as those on sick leave – as well as those who attend Club 3-16 after school hours. Broadcasting is another area related to disability rights. Suffice to note that, as things stand, deaf people are being excluded from the electoral campaign due to a lack of sign language in prominent electoral debates and news. AD insists that every television station should transmit programmes, such as news broadcasts, using sign language. Where possible, films and documentaries should be shown using sub-titles.

In this respect, AD is proposing that Maltese sign language should be recognised by the Government as an official language and that sign language interpretation is mainstreamed in the public sector.

Besides, public procurement should always include a disability dimension.

The above examples, all featuring in AD’s electoral manifesto, confirm one thing: true democracy facilitates the empowerment of all persons through policies and legislation rather than through arbitrary charity. Hence, people with disability should have full access to the political, social, economic and cultural spheres of everyday life.

AD is not yet in Parliament but we have already ensured that persons with disability feature prominently in political discourse. In Parliament, we will ensure the implementation of policies related to the rights of such persons.

Michael Briguglio is chairperson of Alternattiva Demokratika.

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