Blind World Magazine

Equal rights for all is a must.

October 13, 2005.
Fiji Times.

Disabled persons exist in every society. And like any other member of the society they need a chance to realise their full potential. This will involve disabled persons being treated as equal to able-bodied members of society.

By law, disabled individuals must not be denied the right to education, work, housing or access to public places and public transport because of their condition.

Disabled persons should not be denied the opportunity to develop themselves and take part in the community like any other person.

The law in Fiji on this issue is quite clear - section 38 (2) (a) of the 1997 Constitution says a person must not be unfairly discriminated against because of his or her personal characteristics or circumstances.

A handicap or disability constitutes such a characteristic or circumstance.

Section 38 (4) of the Constitution further says every person has the right of access to public facilities like shops, hotels, restaurants, places of entertainment, public transport, taxis and public places.

Section 38 (5) of the Constitution squarely places the responsibility of making such places and services accessible to every person, on the proprietor of such a place or service.

However, many public places and much of the public transport system in Fiji does not provide easy access to disabled persons.

They are designed in such a way that only able-bodied persons can access them and not those who, for example, are on wheelchairs.

In 2004 the Fiji Human Rights Commission conducted an audit of public places in Suva and Nadi to establish their accessibility for the disabled.

The audit arose as a consequence of a resolution adopted after a commission inquiry on the rights of people with disabilities in December 2002.

The inquiry was conducted in partnership with the diverse non-government organisations looking after disability issues in Fiji, for example Fiji Crippled Children's Society, Fiji Women's Support, Fiji Society for the Blind, Fiji Disabled Persons Association, Spinal Injury Association, Fiji Counterstroke Association, Fiji Red Cross Society and Fiji Women's Crisis Centre.

The resolutions were formulated into the Fiji Human Rights Commission's Disability Action Plan which sets out the policy directions of the commission on disability rights.

This action plan proposed to promote an inclusive, barrier-free and rights-based society for persons with disabilities. The priority areas covered in this plan were access to public places, education, provision of housing, access to places of worship, access to information and communication, adequate provision of security, adequate health care, access to employment and access to and participation in sports and recreation and support services.

The audit subsequently carried out by the commission's complaints manager Joseph Camillo, investigations officer (unfair discrimination) Swasti Chand and investigations officer (disciplined services) Filimoni Daveta, attempted to ascertain whether:

q The building/facility or public service was accessible to disabled persons or members of the public using wheelchairs or crutches;

q the facility was accessible by elevator and whether it had reinforced railings for support;

q the elevator had a fire or emergency alarm warning mechanism inside;

q the facility had private toilets or public conveniences that were visibly marked for disabled men and women; and

q designated parking places for the disabled were provided.

At least 70 per cent of public places in Suva, for example government offices, hospitals, banks, restaurants, shopping centres, education institutes, places of worship and sporting facilities, were surveyed.

These places were selected for audit on the basis they were the most likely places any person, disabled or not, was likely to visit.

Out of these places audited, only one - a fast-food outlet - was fully compliant. It allowed access of disabled persons, had designated parking places for them and had appropriately adapted toilets. The rest of the public places, however, did not match any of the legal criteria or matched them only partially.

For example, an entertainment centre did have wheelchair access and appropriate toilet facilities, but did not have a dedicated, designated parking space.

Disabled people who drive are, therefore, excluded from this place. While they can go inside the entertainment centre with ease and enjoy its services, getting to the centre will be difficult for disabled persons who drive their own vehicles.

Disabled persons must be given access to public places. Such access should not be a cosmetic exercise, but something that is practical for individuals on wheelchairs.

The Nadi and Nausori airports were included in the audit. Both were only partially compliant. In a case complained to the commission that initiated the audit, two wheelchair passengers had to travel by car to Nadi to catch an international flight because the domestic airline at Nausori could not provide them with facilities to board their plane.

The owners of the places surveyed by the commission as well as other stakeholders will be forwarded the detailed report of this audit this month.

The Fiji Human Rights Commission hopes the result of this audit will be taken into account by relevant stakeholders and that these places are made more compatible with disabled persons' basic requirements.

New public buildings will from now on be required to be accessible to disabled persons as the Public Health (National Building Code) Regulations 2004 carries provisions for access to disabled persons. This regulation is already in effect. Failure to comply will result in a fine of up to $200. The new regulation further states that if a person fails to make the building compliant, then he or she can be further fined up to $4 per day of non-compliance.

The commission's Disability Action Plan has been integrated as one of the guiding principles of the Fiji National Council of Disabled Persons (FNCDP). This indicates that government, which funds the FNCDP, recognises the importance of disabled persons' access to public places and services

The Fiji Human Rights Commission continues to work with FNCDP and other stakeholders to ensure the rights of disabled persons are not violated. The commission is involved in talks with Post Fiji to provide postal concessions for visually impaired people.

The commission is working on making the 2006 General Election accessible to people with disabilities. This week the commission received a complaint from the Fiji Disabled Peoples Association that disabled persons are denied their right to vote in secret as provided by Section 36 of the Constitution. This is because visually impaired or blind persons have to rely on elections officials to cast their vote for them. All information provided on the voting slip is in print form - something which is inaccessible to visually impaired or blind persons.

People with hearing disabilities are denied access to vote in secret because voting centres do not have sign language interpreters. This makes communication difficult for persons with hearing disabilities. In addition, many voting centres are not wheelchair friendly or even accessible.

Disabled persons need to take part in elections like any other person in a democratic society. They should not be denied the right to vote.

Disabled persons are very much a part of any society. They need to be given the chance to live in dignity, just like able bodied persons. Giving disabled persons all the access they need to places and services is one way of ensuring everyone in Fiji is treated equally and with respect for their inherent human dignity.

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