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Unceasing action on disability

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Kummissjoni Nazzjonali Persuni b’Dizabilita’ (KNPD). It also marks the 25th anniversary since the death of Monsignor Mikiel Azzopardi, widely acknowledged as the first real champion of disabled people in the Maltese Islands.

If Mgr Azzopardi was notable in his achievements as an individual, KNPD has sought to focus its endeavours on turning disability into a national issue, through the introduction of a social model of disability with its concomitant changes in language-usage, values and a focus on human and civil rights.

To some extent there will always be disabling barriers we will have to confront. Life being what it is, every time a disabling barrier is overcome new ones crop up. One reason is because disabled people naturally raise their expectations, becoming more demanding and insistent in their desire to join the mainstream of society.

Disability can therefore be seen as a constantly developing situation, continuously evolving. New paradigms are created for society, paradigms in which disabled people attend mainstream schools, continue with post-secondary studies, join the labour market, socialise, pursue their personal interests, travel aboard and form friendships, relationships and families.

While the aspirations and expectations of disabled individuals have changed very rapidly in last three decades (and rightly so) everyone understands that national change happens at a much slower rate than individual requirements.

KNPD’s endeavours are reported mainly in the two annual reports: The first covers KNPD’s work for the previous year; the second deals with the work of KNPD’s Equal Opportunities Compliance Unit (EOCU) which deals with complaints and queries regarding the Equal Opportunities (Persons with Disability) Act of 2000 (EOA).

Together, these reports encapsulate the work that KNPD carries out in fulfilment of its legal obligations under the EOA. It is important to bear in mind that KNPD legal obligations comprise no less than 19 different functions. It is impossible to go into detailed descriptions of these functions in a single document, therefore, the EOCU’s most recent annual report focuses on those functions which deal directly with complaints of discrimination lodged by disabled people, family members or other allies.

Among the issues raised in the article entitled Action on the Disability Front (December 15) was the number of complaints dealt with by KNPD. These complaints amounted to 122 from October 2011 to September 2012, the period covered by the report. The number of disabled persons residing in Malta, according to the NSO’s 2011 Census figures, is almost 32,200. This means that complaints were made in the past year by 0.3 per cent of the disabled population. To take another country as an example, according to statistics provided by the Australian Human Rights Commission, in 2010/2011, 4,294 complaints regarding discrimination on the ground of disability were received. The total population of disabled people in Australia is 3.95 million. This means that the complaints represent 0.1 per cent of the disabled population there.

Naturally, these statistics may be interpreted in different ways. One might argue that the statistics show that Maltese disabled people are more aware of their rights and demand them more assertively.

Conversely, one might insist that disabled Maltese encounter more discrimination than their Australian peers and that therefore they have more cause for complaint. But, as ever, statistics can only elucidate part of the picture.

For instance, many complaints that KNPD deals with are greater than the sum of their individual parts: many have a multiplier effect. Sometimes the multiplier effect is direct. For example, an individual may complain about lack of access to a shop, church, government office or other part of the built environment. Once KNPD has intervened and accessibility improved, the resultant improved access is enjoyed by everyone, disabled or not.

Sometimes the multiplier is indirect. For example, the cases regarding discrimination in the field of employment all concern individuals whose situations differ from each other. But resolving these individual issues often results in more employers become aware of the right of their disabled employees to have reasonable accommodation at the workplace.

Reporting the outcome of these cases sends out a strong (hopefully positive) signal to other employers. This direct or indirect multiplier effect applies for all the other types of complaints dealt with, including those related to the area of education. The article I referred to speaks of the lack of a grassroots disability movement in Malta. In 1994, KNPD began addressing this problem by identifying and fostering future leaders through its Speak Out! courses. Based on Paolo Freire’s concept of “conscientisation”, Speak Out! helps disabled people and parents of disabled people unable to represent themselves, to develop public speaking skills and media savvy. Many disabled Maltese activists who are prominent in the public sphere today are ‘Speak Out!’ ‘graduates’.

This year KNPD assumed a new role and new responsibilities under the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability.

To cope with these new tasks and new identity KNPD will be setting up structures to ensure that disabled people, especially those in disabled people’s organisations, are directly involved in all decision-making processes.

The process will contribute to the capacity building of these organisations. All our efforts can be further reinforced by the contribution of non-disabled allies who enable and support disabled people to speak on their own behalf.

KNPD can assure all disabled people that its doors are always open to them, their family members and genuine allies who require its assistance.

KNPD further pledges to continue working steadily to improve disabled people’s quality of life and not to waste its precious resources indulging in time-consuming, fleeting and ultimately self-defeating polemics.

Joseph Camilleri chairs the National Commission Persons with Disability.

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