For a number of years now, NGOs, disability activists, social workers, human rights advocates and even some politicians have been clamouring for the early introduction of a Disability Bill in Parliament. On the occasion of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities it is pertinent to ponder on the importance and necessity of such a Bill.
The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which is the first human rights treaty of the 21st century, became international law in 2008. Mauritius became a party to it by ratifying the Convention in 2010. This signifies that it is under obligation to adopt a human rights approach to the issue of disability as opposed to the common charitable and medical model which views persons with disabilities as sick and as objects of commiseration and pity instead of as holders of rights. From this perspective therefore, it becomes necessary to have a comprehensive piece of legislation that embodies the rights and entitlements of persons with disabilities and their unconditional access as full-fledged and equal citizens to services and amenities offered by the State. Hence the need for a Disability Bill as a sort of ‘Magna Carta’ for persons with disabilities.
With the adoption of a human rights model of disability, it is imperative to use the proper terms and concepts underlying this issue and in regard to the inherent dignity of persons with disabilities. This implies that a number of legislations which contain anachronistic concepts, and in which are embedded a language and terminology deemed to be derogatory to persons with disabilities need to be swiped out and reviewed. This involves an important legislative housekeeping work with regards to what are viewed as disparaging terms such as ‘handicapped’, ‘lunatic invalid’, ‘unsound mind’, ‘incapacitated voter’, ‘dumb’, ‘state of imbecility’, ‘crippled’ and so on which intersperse our legislations and even our Constitution.
A human rights approach entails, over and above all, the expungement of discriminatory provisions and clauses from our legislations. Glaring examples are section 17.3 of the Equal Opportunities Act which allows an educational institution to discriminate on the basis of impairment under certain circumstances and section 23.2 of the same Act which exempts an owner of a building from providing access facilities in certain cases. Another example is the Passport Act which enables a passport officer to deny a passport to a certain category of persons with disabilities. The Civil Status Act also is not disability friendly when it comes to marriage of deaf persons.
It is clear that important changes have to be brought. To align our legislations with the provisions of the Convention, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has further recommended that necessary amendments be brought to a number of other legislations such as the Civil Code, the Domestic Violence Act, the National Assembly Elections Act, the Rodrigues Regional Assembly Elections Act, the Building Control Act, the Town and Country Planning Act and a host of other legislations. This process is known as domestication. It can be done by bringing consequential amendments through the proposed Disability Bill.
One Stop Shop
Furthermore, the enactment of a Disability Bill would provide an opportunity to adopt an integrated and holistic approach instead of a piecemeal one. At present a number of bodies, sometimes competing ones, are providing a number of services to persons with disabilities and this is resulting in dispersal of resources, duplication, unnecessary delays and red tapism. The Disability Bill would enable the merging of the various bodies and the setting-up of a consolidated disability authority, a sort of a One Stop Shop that would avoid the client the pain of going from pillar to post for a particular service. The end result would be greater efficiency.
In Government Programme 2015- 2019, there is an unambiguous commitment for the introduction of a Disability Bill. In Parliament too, time and again Ministers have committed themselves to do the same. Years have elapsed but the much-heralded Bill is still being awaited.