Giving equal opportunity to people with a disability

Close to three years ago the national census identified approximately 12,000 people with disability in Samoa.

One of the benefits of a census is the opportunity that it offers the nation’s marginalised groups and individuals to be identified, and be included in any service delivery programme that the Government plans to roll out.

The General Manager of Nuanua O Le Alofa (N.O.L.A.), Mata’afa Fa’atino Utumapu, made reference to the census findings in order to alert the authorities to the fact that a large number of them are missing out on vital services.

“The 2016 census identified almost 12,000 persons with disabilities because that was the first year we introduced the question on disability to the census,” she said. 

“However, that number also includes persons with not so severe disabilities [and who] therefore do not want to call themselves as persons with disabilities."

The concerns were raised during the Pacific Disability Forum in Apia, which was attended by regional representatives. 

As an organisation representing people living with disability, N.O.L.A. has 500 registered members, but Mata’afa believes that their numbers go beyond their registered membership. 

The biggest concern for N.O.L.A. and other stakeholders is the lack of access to transport and other services for their members and other marginalised groups. 

“The majority of our members live in rural areas," she said. "Our transportation system is not so accessible, it makes it harder for them to travel to the urban areas, where the services are available.”

It is tragic that close to three years after the release of the census figures, some of the challenges faced by people with disabilities are yet to be addressed, by the Government and the relevant ministries.

The lack of access to transport for people living with disability as well as the absence of employment opportunities for them have been highlighted as two major issues that should be addressed.

It is a coincidence that the census was done in the same year as Samoa’s ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which again compels one to ask why there continues to be delays in improving the lives of people with disabilities.

The United Nations back then released a statement, commending Samoa for ratifying the convention.

“By ratifying the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the governments of Samoa and Micronesia have committed to improving the lives of persons with disabilities which is a very encouraging step forward,” said Ms Chitralekha Massey, Regional Representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Pacific Regional Office.

While Mata’afa has picked transport access and employment opportunities as the two major hurdles, she has acknowledged the work of the Ministry of Education, Sports and Culture (M.E.S.C.) in promoting access to education for children living with disabilities. 

Therefore, we commend the M.E.S.C. for taking the first steps to promote inclusive education for all, in line with the spirit of the convention.

We hope the progress made by the Ministry will compel other Government agencies to review their own policies on this particular issue, and begin work to get Samoa to fully comply with the convention.

Sadly, the transport challenges remain unresolved, but the issue could not have been highlighted at a better time, with the 2019 XVI Pacific Games concluding last month and the Government now in possession of access buses courtesy of donor partners.

It would not hurt for the Government to consider the ‘donation’ of a Pacific Games-used bus to a stakeholder such as N.O.L.A., which continues to do a fabulous job in representing and promoting the interests of people with disabilities.

The regional conference in Apia offered the opportunity for N.O.L.A. to continue with their capacity building, while interacting and discussing their experiences with regional colleagues. 

However, the challenges remain for Mata’afa and her team of hardworking staff.

“There is a commitment by vocational training providers – given the level of education of persons with disabilities especially the adults is not as high in comparison to persons without disabilities because of how their upbringing – and the many barriers they faced while they were young,” she said.

We all know what needs to be done to change the status quo, to ensure these groups of citizens have access to equal opportunities just like anyone else. It is time to walk the talk. 

Have a lovely Sunday Samoa and God bless.

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