Is a PWD Act with more bite looming in the horizon?
by Peter Tan. Posted on July 12, 2014, Saturday
DISABLED people criticised the Persons with Disabilities Bill for its lack of punitive measures when it was tabled in Parliament in 2007. The minister of Women, Family and Community Development then admitted there were no provisions in the Act to punish those who violated the rights of disabled people. We were told that other existing laws were sufficient to protect those rights.
Unfortunately, the relevant laws such as the Uniform Building By-Law 34A (UBBL 34A) have done little to ensure the built environment is accessible. It was gazetted by the various state governments in the 1990s but the local governments, the agencies responsible for implementing and enforcing it, have failed to ensure developers and building managers comply with the requirements for the past 20 years.
The Persons with Disabilities Act 2008 was meant to stop discrimination and encourage reasonable accommodation so that disabled people can achieve a quality of life equal to that of non-disabled people in society. Its noble objectives are however not translated into action. Ask disabled people and chances are that they will tell you their lives have not changed for the better since the Act came into force.
We are still experiencing the indignity of being discriminated against in areas of education, employment and social activities, among others. Many among us quietly swallow it, the reason being that we are ignorant of our rights. We accept the inequality as the norm because we have been treated that way all our lives. We blame our own impairments as the cause of the problems we face.
Contrary to those beliefs, the Act succinctly recognises that disability results from the interaction between disabled persons and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinder our full and equal participation in society. At the same time, we are entitled to equal opportunity, protection and assistance in all circumstances.
Time and again, disability rights advocates have spoken out against the inadequacy of the Act. We have suggested for it to be amended to include penalties. The ministry was mum about amending it but kept reiterating that existing laws were sufficient to deal with acts of discrimination.
Despite the shortcomings of the Act, Paragraph 13 provides for the National Council of Persons with Disabilities to recommend to the government changes to any law or propose the provision of new laws to secure full and effective participation of disabled people in society. Thus, I cannot understand the initial resistance to amend what was essentially a toothless piece of law.
Therefore, it was surprising that the deputy minister was reported on Monday to have said that the ministry is considering revising the Act to include punitive measures for those who misuse facilities meant for disabled persons. However, the ministry has not determined when the Act would be amended. At best, these are mere conjectures at the moment.
Nevertheless, the consideration to revise the Act is most welcomed. When it does get amended, it should not stop at covering only the misuse of accessible facilities. It must include penalties for discrimination based on impairments in all aspects of a disabled person’s life, regardless of whether those acts are wilful or systemic.
This is to ensure that all public and private organisations review their existing policies and make them inclusive in line with the goals of the amended Act. Those that are recalcitrant and refuse to comply would be subjected to penalties and lawsuits.
There is no need to reinvent the wheel when making amendments to the Act. We can model it after existing anti-discrimination legislation from other countries such as the American with Disabilities Act and the United Kingdom’s Disability Discrimination Act and adapt it to be consistent with the Federal Constitution and other existing domestic laws.
The implementation of the amended Act must be tempered with strict enforcement. A recourse-seeking process that is simple and affordable should be put in place. Not every disabled person can afford to appoint a lawyer to pursue cases of discrimination. Perhaps a bureau or commission with full powers to hear and prosecute can be set up for this purpose.
Having said that, legislation prevents people from breaking the law although they may not subscribe to the merits of it. They will have no qualms if they think they can get away without being punished. For that reason, education can be more effective in changing people’s way of thinking, including those of disabled people. Through education, they can understand disability as a social issue and a man-made problem, and internalise values to respect the rights of disabled people.
Six years is a long time for the government to come to the realisation that the law that is supposed to protect disabled people is ineffective. Still, it is never too late to improve on it. If the government is serious in tightening the law with the inclusion of punitive measures, let the amendments be made sooner than later. We deserve a society that is free from discrimination and one where equal opportunity and full participation is a way of life rather than a pipe dream.
Most importantly, disabled people must be included in the drafting of the amendments when the day comes. This is for us to safeguard our interests as the main stakeholders. After all, this law is for us and involving us is the right thing to do.
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