Although society is slowly recognising the potential of people with different abilities, segregation in everyday life remains a reality for a lot of people with disabilities. Disabilities Commissioner Oliver Scicluna tells Ramona Depares that education, accessibility and employment remain the top priorities.

What does the current landscape look like for people with disabilities?

The dynamics of society when relating to people with disabilities has changed. Today, expectations are higher. People with disabilities want more – they want more inclusion, more education and employment opportunities, more leisure options, more potential for relationships and intimacy, more autonomy… more of everything, and rightly so. This is the reality. We want control over our own lives, we do not want our lives to be decided by anyone but us.

During these past five years we have seen a spike in reports of discrimination against people with disabilities. This does not necessarily mean that there is more discrimination, but simply that more people with disabilities have become more aware of their rights. In today’s society there are more scenarios where discrimination may be encountered; our lives are fuller, more complicated. I would worry more where I to witness a decrease in complaints, because it wouldn’t necessarily indicate an improvement in society.

What are the areas that require most work?

It is no secret that accessibility on the roads is as bad as it was 10 years ago. And inclusive education is not working, we are seeing problems with the system as it currently is. Employment, on the other hand, is a positive area.

How so?

We have a stronger structure to encourage employability, and for this I can’t not praise the authorities. And it is working well because the system is enforced. Of course, there are still people with disabilities who are unemployed, or who are looking for work. There need to be created more opportunities for people with mental disabilities, for example. The government needs to work on increasing niches for employability, such as for those with Down’s Syndrome or autism.

Employers also need more support in this respect, in the form of guidance regarding recruitment, on-the-job support and so forth. The Lino Spiteri Foundation needs to be strengthened.

Why is the inclusive education system not working?

The more time passes, the more genuine inclusive education is in danger. I am not sure why this is happening – the fact that there are two teachers’ unions, meaning that efforts are split and there is an element of ‘competition’ – is not helping. Some directives impact vulnerable people negatively; even worse, the curriculum is outdated and doesn’t promote inclusion.

Has not the LSA system helped in this respect?

Being in the classroom with an LSA is not inclusion. Inclusion happens when each person in the classroom benefits from what is happening within that same classroom. The LSA system needs better management.

Is there still a shortage of LSAs?

It is not so much an issue of shortage, as it is of distribution. The way the system works means that a child is given an LSA as soon as the slightest thing is spotted – for example, in cases of a speech delay. An LSA is not needed in every case.

During the first semester of 2018, between 100 and 120 pupils at kindergarten level were given an LSA, and this alarms me. Is it a case of teachers not wanting to assume responsibility?

When a child who doesn’t need an LSA is given one, it can be a burden. Consider that when you join the workforce, you will not have an LSA to facilitate matters.

Of course, once a child is assigned an LSA it is very difficult to take away the option later. Parents would be up in arms, by then the child is used to having an LSA and so forth. This is why I don’t believe in this system; I worry that we are encouraging a culture of dependence, not autonomy. LSAs should only be assigned to those who really need them. I have seen children with the same condition that I have – spina bifida – who can’t function without the crutch of an LSA. As a child, I was never assigned one and today I am autonomous. This is a difficult concept to explain to parents, of course. But today’s children have more potential and opportunities than I had when I was young, and these should not be nipped at the bud.

How can we achieve more inclusion within the education system?

For starters, the LSA system needs to be finetuned, as described above. Then there is the other issue of special schools. The idea behind inclusive education is to remove segregation, which means that special schools need to be used in moderation. I do not believe in cutting someone away from the rest of society. Children with disabilities should be attending normal schools, the same as everyone else does, and if special schooling is required that can be done within limited hours.

Creating peripheral centres does not foster inclusion. I will not accept that more people continue being sent to these schools. Instead, we need support measures so that children can receive their education within the normal classroom. It is the duty of the education department to make sure that this happens, to fulfil its obligation of making education accessible to everyone.

Will this help employability?

Well, as things stand there is a lacuna between education and employment, with some people finding it difficult to transition, or to adept to fulltime employment.

Is there a viable solution to this?

We need to invest in social enterprises and co-operatives. This endeavour needs to be taken seriously and to be implemented with a solid structure, following a tried-and-tested model. In this way, those who attend day centres can work alongside the rest of society.

Another step in the right direction was the introduction of the minimum wage for those who cannot be employed. But there are other measures that I disagreed with, such as the two-year employment programmes that come to an end when the funding finishes. Which means that you have a person who suddenly ends up with no employment, when they could be playing a productive part in society. In these cases, government has always helped identify other employment opportunities, but the system needs to be adapted so as to work seamlessly.

The dynamics of society when relating to people with disabilities has changed. Today, expectations are higher

Has society come to accept that people with disabilities have a right to the same opportunities and lifestyle as everyone else?

Mostly, people have started to realise that everyone has something to offer. A look at social media is enough to show us that improvements have been made. But still, there are those who still think of us as a charity case.

Then there is the other issue, this perception that people with disabilities are ‘superhuman’, or an ‘inspiration’. We are normal people. I am not an inspiration, I simply did everything I could to live my life the way I wanted to.

You mentioned that accessibility on the street is as bad as it was 10 years ago. Can you elaborate?

It’s a disaster. The kerbs are not accessible to people with disabilities. The positive aspect is that we are working closely with Infrastructure Malta to create guidelines that will improve the situation. We tend to complain a lot about festa street decorations because they are an obstruction, but reality is that this happens once a year. On a daily basis there is a plethora of other obstructions, and these include things that you would never look at and think twice. Garbage bags and plants, for instance. These will both stop a person on a wheelchair in their tracks. The pavements need to be obstacle-free and kept only for pedestrians, otherwise we cannot talk of accessibility.

What are the other priorities?

Enforcement, which remains a joke and needs strengthening across multiple contexts. It is useless to legislate for the accessibility of buildings, pavements and parking spots if we fail to enforce the law properly. Take the Blue Badge system; it took a lot of work to implement, but unfortunately the enforcers are not familiar with the way it is meant to work.

On multiple occasions, I have been informed that, when a Blue Badge parking spot is taken by someone who has no right to do so, law enforcers will call that person to remove the car. This is not what the law lays down – the law requires the car to be fined and towed. We need the enforcers to be trained to become familiar with the legal system.

On a positive note, the local councils do work with us very closely on these matters and our Compliance Unit is in constant liaison with them.

In 2017 you had suggested that Malta needs to also look into the employment of sex workers for people with a disability. Have there been any developments in this regard?

I am being cautious about this topic. I have sounded the different opinions of people, because it is my duty to do so, but changes happen gradually in society, of course.  A group of people had communicated their wishes to me, and it is my job to deliver their message out there. I do not necessarily agree that sex workers are the best way to ensure sexual rights, but as Commissioner I cannot ignore what the people wish to discuss. I am not here to discuss my  personal agenda, after all.

One aspect that worries me with respect to sexual rights are recent reports about some parents being anti-sex education in schools. Such news affects people with disabilities too, as there is a need for more sex education, not less.

When it comes to sexual relationships for people with disabilities, we tend to segregate. There is this perception that it is fine for some people with specific disabilities to have sex, while for others it isn’t. The latter is true particularly with respect to those with mental disabilities, such as Down’s Syndrome. I have witnessed parents ruin the relationships of their children.

If we take a look at the situation abroad, we will see that yes, there are couples of mixed abilities and their relationship functions well. We have caught up with this way of thinking in terms of disabilities of a physical or a sensorial nature, but we still tend to over-protect those with intellectual disabilities (inpoġġuhom f’bozza). This attitude does not augur well for any proposals regarding sex workers.

Do you believe that this attitude will change anytime soon?

It will take time. And we also need to address the basics, first, such as accessibility. For now, it is more a matter of pushing for a homogenous sexual health policy, one that includes people with disabilities and doesn’t segregate them. We cannot ignore reproductive rights, for instance, and we cannot ignore what these people want. As an example, I am not in favour of abortion, but I cannot ignore that there will be women who are pro-choice. We need to discuss these issues.

The only thing that frustrates me about the topic of abortion is when some movements promote it in case of a birth defect. This is completely against what the Commission stands for. If we continue treating people with disabilities in this way, then we may as well close shop and go home.

How can we ensure that all these issues that affect people with disabilities take priority on the national agenda?

We need political representation by people who are familiar with the needs and the laws related to disabilities. I do not believe in quotas, but people with disabilities need to be given a real chance to get to Parliament using their own skills. What is needed to make this happen is more support, including from the political parties themselves and from the system in general. Some of the challenges can be resolved through funding; others through training and a support structure, including a strong team to assist.

We have seen people with disabilities succeed in politics in other countries. There is a town in Spain where the vice-mayor has Down’s Syndrome. Society believes in these people; it’s a matter of perception and prejudices.

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