TOWARDS AN INCLUSIVE SOCIETY – ECONOMIC EMPOWERMENT OF PERSONS WITH DISABILITY.
By Nana Akwasi Awuah
In my August 2015 article on building an inclusive society with focus on persons with disability, I underscored the need to provide economic empowerment to persons with disability so that they may contribute meaningfully to national development.
The need to build an inclusive society that takes into account persons with disability cannot be overemphasized. Ghana’s Persons with Disability Act, 2006 (Act 715) provides a broad framework for realizing an inclusive society. It is worthy to note that despite its limitations, the provisions of the Act are generally in tandem with the ‘Articles of Inclusion’ (namely 3 and 19) of the UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities which Ghana became a signatory to in March 2007 and eventually ratified in August 2012. Article 3 of the Convention lays down general principles one of which is the full and effective participation and inclusion of all persons with disabilities in society. This general principle is elaborated upon in Article 19 by casting a positive obligation on State parties to take effective and appropriate measures to ensure its realisation.
In this article, I discuss the existing legal framework designed to ensure the attainment of economic empowerment for persons with disability. In the discussion, I identify some of the challenges I have learned of as a result of my work and direct interaction with persons with disability and their families. Then I make a modest attempt to offer some suggestions to address these challenges.
Nelson Mandela’s words that “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” is indubitably a truism.
Undoubtedly, the first step to economic empowerment is education – both formal and informal. To this end, Act 715 enjoins every parent, guardian or custodian of a child with disability of school going age to enroll the child in a school. The Act provides sanctions for failure to enroll such a child by punishing that culpable parent, guardian or custodian with a fine of GHC120 or two weeks imprisonment.
The Act also casts an obligation on Government to provide free education for a person with disability, and to establish special schools for persons with disability who by reason of their disability cannot be enrolled in formal schools.
According to Ghana Schools Net, there are nineteen special schools in Ghana, some of which are private. The Human Rights Watch estimates that there are about 5 million persons with disability living in Ghana. Out of this figure, it is unclear how many are children. Assuming though that there are a million of this population of persons with disability who are children of school going age spread across the country; it is obvious that there is an inadequate number of special schools in the country to accommodate all of them. There is therefore the need to build more special schools to provide education to these young members of our society.
The Act also obligates the Minister of Education to designate schools or institutions in each region which shall provide the necessary facilities and equipment that will enable persons with disability to fully benefit from the school or institution. It may be observed that this provision is in itself discriminatory. In the broader spirit of building an inclusive society with full participation of persons with disability, all public schools at all levels of education ought to be provided with the necessary facilities and equipment that will enable persons with disability to fully benefit from the institution. It should not be limited to only schools designated by the Minister of Education. Indeed the situation on the ground is that there are many children with disabilities who are turned away from public schools simply on the now notorious excuse that such children require “special care” and that there are neither teachers nor facilities within the school to provide such “special care”.
It is interesting to note that per the Act, a person responsible for admission into a school or other institution of learning is required not to refuse admission of a person with disability on account of the disability unless the person with disability has been assessed by the Ministries of Education and Health in collaboration with the Social Welfare to be a person who clearly requires to be in a special school for children or persons with disability. It is an offence for a person to unlawfully refuse admission of children with disability and such a person may be punished with a fine of GHC600 or three months imprisonment or both. It is important therefore for persons responsible for admission into public schools to satisfy themselves based on the assessment from the Social Welfare that a child with disability actually requires to be in a special school. Many parents of such children are also not aware of these provisions of the law and so are rendered helpless when their children are refused admission. Thus it is important to embark on sensitization and education so that all stakeholders become aware of these vital provisions.
A curious provision in the Act (that is section 19) says that “where a person with disability has completed basic education but is unable to pursue further formal education, the Ministry shall provide the person with appropriate training.” The provision of special vocational training schools across the country shall be useful in equipping such persons with disability with the requisite skills set that will empower them either to be self-employed or make them employable.
After securing education, the expected thing to do next is to put the knowledge and skills acquired to gainful use. Unfortunately, many organizations and business entities shy away from giving employment to persons with disability. This is largely as a result of the stigmatization of persons with disability. This situation is prevalent despite the express statutory prohibition against discrimination of persons with disability when it comes to employment.
Government is obligated by the Act to grant a person (natural or artificial) who employs a person with disability an annual tax rebate of the taxable income in respect of each person with disability employed. The Act further obligates Government to grant special incentives to persons with disability engaged in business and also to business organizations that employ persons with disability.
In order to provide job security to people who eventually come to suffer a disability as a result of their job, the Act provides that the employer in such a situation has the obligation to counsel, re-train and re-deploy the person to another section of the organization which is more suited to the person with disability. This is in addition to any other relief that the employee is entitled to under the Workmen’s Compensation Law, 1987 (P.N.D.C.L. 187).
The Act enjoins the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection to assist to secure jobs for persons with disability. The law goes further to provide that where the name of a person with disability remains on a job search list for more than two years, the Ministry shall take the name of that person off the list, and where applicable give that person appropriate training, provide that person with the necessary working tools and materials, and assist that person to access loan capital for that person to start a business. It is an offence for a person with disability to sell the tools or materials provided by the Ministry and the one who buys them also commits an offence. Both the person with disability who sells and the one who buys are punishable with a fine of GHC3,000 or a maximum of one year imprisonment or both. This is very laudable as its effective implementation shall ensure support and sustenance of persons with disability who wish to engage in their own trade or business. On the part about loan capital, it is important to mention that, there is a special allocation of 2% of the District Assembly Common Fund for persons with disability. The 2010 Guidelines on the Disbursal of the District Assembly Common Fund Allocation to Persons with Disability captures the objectives of the allocation as follows: to support the income generating activities of individual persons with disabilities as a means of economic empowerment; to provide educational support for children, students and trainees with disabilities. This is important in building the capacity of Organizations of Persons with Disability in the districts to enable them to advocate and assert their rights and undertake awareness raising and sensitization on disability issues; and to support persons with disabilities have access to technical aids and other assistive devices and equipment.
There is the need to ensure strict adherence to the guidelines in order to ensure that the funds are applied to achieve its purpose. That way situations such as that captured in the 2012 Auditor General’s Report which revealed a misapplication of the allocated funds in the Birim South District of the Eastern Region will be prevented.
Finally, it is important to mention that there are quite a considerable number of cases where parents (predominantly mothers) of children with disability are unemployed. These single unemployed mothers find it very difficult to care for and maintain their children. From my interaction with these parents, the situation is usually as a result of total neglect and abandonment by the fathers of these children who claim that the children and their mothers are a bad omen to them.
The quest to secure economic empowerment for persons with disability should be extended to parents of children with disability. It is therefore suggested that the allocated funds should also be disbursed to support the income generating activities of parents of children with disability. Furthermore, such parents should be made to benefit from the training and incentives provided under the Act. It is further suggested that there should be a deliberate employment policy backed by legislation to ensure that persons with disability or parents of children with disability are gainfully employed. Thus, like the Petroleum (Local Content and Local Participation) Regulations, 2013 (LI 2204), it is proposed that Regulations are made to make it mandatory for businesses and organizations to employ persons with disability as well as parents of children with disability. The Regulations should provide the modalities for such employment and should also spell out the incentives and tax benefits available for such businesses and organizations
In sum, the existing legal framework, though laudable, requires a lot of improvement. It is fervently hoped that there will be a committed and coordinated plan backed by law to economically empower persons with disability as well as parents of children with disability so that the attainment of an inclusive society shall be realized.