En Route to a Fully Accessible Barbados

Lady in a beach wheelchair on the beach in Barbados with her hands out stretched

| by Shana Jones

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities was established at the UN headquarters in New York on December 13, 2006 and took effect on May 3, 2008. Its 39 articles outline clear mandates for recognizing and protecting the right of persons with disabilities (PWD) to function in society with the same dignity, freedom, and opportunity as other people. In February of 2013, Barbados ratified the convention, pledging before the world its commitment to uphold the directives of the agreement.

In 2016, the Barbados Tourism Product Authority threw its support behind the Fully Accessible Barbados initiative launched by the Barbados Council for the Disabled (BCD), the umbrella organization for specific and cross-disability organizations on the island. With a view to enhancing the island’s tourism product, the program, among other things, established accessibility standards for businesses and facilities serving the public. It goes without saying that accessibility benefits everyone: an enjoyable vacation for some translates into spending power, and in turn, economic activity for others. How does Barbados become fully accessible, though? Surely it means more than putting a wheelchair symbol on the door of a business, and it’s definitely not limited to vacationers. What exactly does a fully accessible (or at least one en route to full accessibility) Barbados look like? What are some of the elements moving the island in this direction?

Advocacy/support groups/community representation

The Barbados Council for the Disabled seeks at its core to improve the lives of PWD in Barbados. With its member organizations, it endeavours to change the experience of PWD through raising awareness to change mindsets, advocating for legislation and policy that recognize and protect the rights of PWD, working with local business and government to provide improved access to facilities, and with its affiliates, providing specific services and assistance to PWD, including education options and employment opportunities. One of its major projects, the Fully Accessible Barbados initiative, extends the council’s mission further to embrace tourism and “aims to create a barrier-free environment in Barbados”.

Legislation and international standards

Without any legal framework or regulatory support, the BCD would have very little ability to bring about any change, so in 2012, it pressured the government to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities. Under the convention, PWD are no longer to be viewed as objects to be pitied or exploited; rather, they are to be recognized as beings worthy of the same rights, freedoms and opportunities as people without disabilities. This speaks directly to the treatment of PWD in countries that have ratified the convention, and having done so, Barbados is bound to honour its mandates. At the national level, in 2016, the Barbados Tourism Product Authority started supporting the BCD in its Fully Accessible Barbados program. The tourism authority also jointly worked with the BCD and Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc. to draft legislation around building codes for accessibility for tourist venues. Blanket legislation mirrored after international standards and the rule of universal design is also in the works.

Efforts to raise awareness and change mindsets

Despite its evolving views of PWD, Barbadian society still harbours some traditional mindsets about this community. Mindsets can only be challenged by raising awareness, and the BCD addresses this through sensitivity training, community events, a number of specialized services, and information sharing through its website and social media. Disability sensitivity training has been undertaken by many public and private service providers on the island, the largest being the Barbados Tourism Product Authority. Training sessions cover the Fully Accessible Barbados program, understanding disabilities, assisting persons with visual impairment, communicating with the deaf, and techniques for lifting and handling people with mobility challenges. The training is conducted by persons with disabilities, therapists, sign language interpreters, and other professionals.

Month of the Disabled, celebrated in March, is perhaps the most significant event on the BCD calendar. Under the theme “Building Back Better for a More Inclusive and Resilient Barbados”, the activities this year included the #CookLikeWe challenge, an online art exhibition, a radio call-in program about special education of PWD in the Covid environment, and a television showcase of PWD in artisan training.

In the arena of increasing awareness, BCD shares information about specific disabilities and recognizes exemplary leaders in the community through its website and social media. In February this year, BCD News featured Janeil Odle, the first blind attorney to be called to the bar. Last year, president of the Barbados Horizon Deaf Club Lionel Smith offered a few tips on communicating with persons who are deaf on the BCD YouTube channel.

Improving accessibility

Under the Fully Accessible Barbados program, the BCD assesses properties for their level of accessibility, makes recommendations as necessary, and then awards the properties within its six accessibility categories according to the level of access offered. The Fully Accessible Barbados accreditation program was designed to “enable people with access requirements to function independently and with dignity through universally aligned tourism services and environment.”

Specific services

In order for PWD to “function independently and with dignity” in society, certain accommodations must be made. Through the BCD, these come in the form of Braille translation, accessible transportation options, sign language interpretation, beach wheelchairs (for use on land and in the water), designated parking ID’s, and an “empowerment” (discount) card for members accepted at merchants across the island.

Education options

A number of learning and training institutions around the island cater to children and adults with disabilities from birth to the age of 21. The services available include academic, rehabilitative, vocational, and basic life skills training, as well as early stimulation and sheltered employment programs.

Employment opportunities

While it remains an unfortunate reality that PWD face higher levels of employment discrimination, the Covid-19 pandemic offers a possible ray of hope: this potential equalizer has leveled the playing field by proving that employees don’t have to be at a physical location to do their jobs. Roseanna Tudor, operations manager at the BCD, envisions the “develop[ment] [of] a new norm” in which difficulty accessing a location is no longer a barrier to employment or other services.

Barbados doesn’t boast full accessibility yet, but it’s definitely on this path and paving the way for other regional destinations to follow. A major step in its progress has been an evolution in thinking that now views persons with disabilities in a different light: as equally valuable resources to be celebrated and empowered and able contributors to an economy now hungry for a turnaround. In such a time as this, no resource can be cast aside. Accessibility opens doors to these resources previously untapped, revealing significant opportunities for growth and enrichment. Accessibility – full accessibility – just makes sense, not simply as a critical factor in a destination’s competitiveness, but as a catalyst for true inclusion and development.