Senator Donna Cox, Minister of Social Development and Family Services.

“It is our goal and commitment that persons with disabilities continue to be mainstreamed in all aspects of society, education, employment, sport, leisure and recreation.”

That statement from Senator Donna Cox, Minister of Social Development and Family Services, in observance of World Down Syndrome Day (WDSD) on March 21, as she addressed the 10th Annual World Down Syndrome Day Conference, hosted by the Down Syndrome Family Network (DSFN).  

The theme of this year’s observance is ‘What Inclusion Means?’, and in her message to the national community, Minister Cox called for the creation of an inclusive society, to ensure that no one is left behind.

The minister stated that accessibility benefits everyone, not just persons with disabilities.  She lamented that persons with Down Syndrome and other persons with disabilities still are not benefitting from full inclusion.  

“Even though a person with a disability or illness often experiences difficulties in life, he or she still deserves the right to live life to the fullest, to be included in everyday activities and to have roles similar to his or her peers. This is what disability inclusion is about,” the Minister said.

According to Minister Cox, the 2011 Population and Housing Census estimated that there are approximately 52,244 persons living with a disability—at least 4% of the total population—which is why policy guidelines are being updated to ensure full inclusion in society of such persons.

“I am happy to advise that presently, the Ministry of Social Development and Family Services is reviewing the National Policy on Persons with Disabilities.  We are also reviewing the legislation with a view to ensuring alignment with the United Nation Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities,” she reported.

“We are also currently in the process of reviewing the Ministry’s Disability Assistance Grant and other similar type programmes that are accessed by persons with disabilities. The purpose of this project is to ensure that our grants and programmes are meeting the needs of persons with disabilities and further, to ensure that the right persons are able to access these grants,” she added.

She noted that these initiatives form a part of the Action Plan of the National Policy on Persons with Disabilities, “to ensure an adequate standard of living for persons with disabilities.”

A significant initiative the minister highlighted was the creation of an “easy to read” version of the National Policy on Persons with Disabilities.

“This is to ensure persons with intellectual disabilities are aware of their rights,” she explained. “Additionally, we are collaborating with the Ministry of Digital Transformation to ensure that all of the Ministry’s digital platforms are fully accessible to persons with disabilities. This will expand on our initial project in 2020 where we created a microsite to increase usage by persons with disabilities on our website.”

Minister Cox pointed out that the Ministry of Social Development and Family Services cannot achieve inclusion for persons with Down Syndrome or any other disability without the collaboration of each Ministry, Statutory Body, Agencies, NGOs and most importantly each citizen.

With regard to NGOs that provide services for persons with disabilities, the minister recounted how the Ministry has supported such entities.

“The Ministry is cognizant that despite the best intentions of many NGOs, there still exists a capacity deficit, in terms of structure, policies, financial management and standard operating procedures, to name a few. To this end, the Ministry has been hosting capacity-building workshops… so as to ensure that they are capable of performing at optimal levels and are better able to efficiently serve the community of persons with disabilities,” she reported.

She added: “We also continue to support organisations that facilitate persons with disabilities, for example, in the last three years the Ministry provided over $132 million in subventions and one-off grants to organisations supporting persons with disabilities.”

Minister Cox said she is pleased that the work of the Ministry has been congruent with the need to promote inclusion in Trinidad and Tobago, and will continue to work with stakeholders for a more inclusive society.