For many years I heard heart-breaking stories from persons with disabilities, who felt that the justice system had failed them. They were often not heard and felt that they had not had equal access to justice because of their disability.
But it was not until I had the experience of seeking legal advice and attending the high Court, did I realise how disadvantaged persons with disabilities really are. As they say “You have to feel it, to really know it”.
An initial concern within the court complex, was finding that the accessible bathroom in the Registry building was not only not sign posted but was locked. After waiting approximately 15 minutes for someone to find the key I was told that it was out of order. There was no offer to locate another accessible bathroom; I therefore had to leave the complex to find a bathroom that was accessible. I was later informed that there are no bathrooms for the public in the Registration Department, bathrooms for the public is in another building, the High court.
That was the beginning of an eye-opening experience, once inside the highest court of the land; I found the physical environment inaccessible. The first concern was the hard marble bench in the waiting area that everyone was expected to sit on. The seats looked attractive, but for someone with a physical challenge, it would be the first stage of punishment, particularly as some had to wait for several hours for their hearing. In addition, the needs of individuals who use an armrest to help them in and out of seating positions were not taken into consideration.
The greatest challenge however was walking into the civil court to find that I could not get my wheelchair further than the doorway. The fixed furniture prohibited me from having access to the court. Yes, I had an apology from the judge for the inaccessibility but that did not change the fact that I did not have equal access and felt at a disadvantage.
I really do not know if decisions were made based on my disability, but the adjourned hearing was held in the criminal court. Access into the courtroom and to the lawyer was not a problem, but I was appalled to note that all seats were fixed. Wheelchair users could not be accommodated as members of the jury, or as court administrators. In fact every aspect of the court structure did not accommodate someone in a wheelchair, either as an accused, a defender or as a lawyer.
The major disappointment was finding that the highest court in the land, by it’s physical environment, is making a clear statement that equal access has not considered. Lawyers and staff in wheelchairs could not been accommodated; I can only assume that because of accessibility they are prohibited from even attempting to work in the court. I was particularly concerned about the physical access because the court is a relatively new building that was officially opened in 2009.
A concern is, how can the high court legally address issues of accessibility or equality of opportunities for persons with disabilities, when the court itself appears to ignore the rights of persons with disabilities to equal access and equal opportunities?
Barbados has recently ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Article 5.4 states that “In order to promote equality and eliminate discrimination, states Parties shall take all steps to ensure that reasonable accommodation is provided”.
Article 27 addresses the issue of persons with disabilities “right to work on an equal basis with others”. I cannot comment on what happens behind the scenes at the court, but it is disappointing to note that persons with disabilities cannot be accommodated on an equal basis with others in the highest court of the land.
A clear statement by the court would be to have an accessible environment. It would also be a good example to see members of staff with disabilities in the judicial system, at whatever level. Changes would also indicate that there is an understanding of the challenges that persons with disabilities face on a daily basis and that there is a genuine commitment by the Courts to equal opportunities and equal access.
I sincerely hope that the first report, to the United Nations on the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities includes a report on an improved physical environment at the High Court and that meaningful steps are taken to make the court an inclusive environment.
We all have to remember that disability rights are human rights. In my opinion it would be very difficult for the courts to make a judgment on equality of opportunities, if the court does not demonstrate equal access for persons with disabilities.
* Boneta Phillips is President Multiple Sclerosis Society of Barbados