June 15, 2024

By Ali Jookhun

As Mauritius marked the International Day of Persons with Disabilities on December 3rd, it presented an opportunity to analyze the current state of disability rights and welfare in the country. Mauritius signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) in 2007 and ratified it in 2010, but with a reservation on the Article related to inclusive education – setting the stage for a complex landscape regarding disability legislation and rights.

The Legal Framework: A Fragmented Approach

Mauritius has no consolidated act that secures the rights and inclusion of persons with disabilities. Instead, a variety of legislation touches upon disability issues in a piecemeal and inconsistent manner.

The starting point related to blindness welfare can be traced back to 1946 when the Society for the Welfare of the Blind was established. It was later transformed into the Lois Lagesse Trust Fund Board in 1983 under the Lois Lagesse Trust Fund Act. Similarly, but more recently, in 1968, the Society for the Welfare of the Deaf Act was enacted to focus on issues and welfare relating to the deaf community.

For mental health, the Mauritius Mental Health Association came into existence in 1974 under an Act of Parliament. This later led to the National Council for the Rehabilitation of Disabled Persons Act in 1986, which aimed to take a broader approach beyond mental health concerns.

Financial assistance and employment issues began to be formally addressed when the Trust Fund for Disabled Persons Act and the Employment of Disabled Persons Board Act were enacted in 1988. These eventually merged under the Training and Employment of Disabled Persons Board Act 1996.

In parallel, the Disability Unit under the Ministry of Social Security was also set up as far back as 1987 to handle disability welfare and rehabilitation programs. Initially named the Rehabilitation Unit, it continues to function to date.

Adding to this mosaic of legislation and bodies, a special education authority was constituted under the law in 2018 called the Special Education Needs Authority under the aegis of the Ministry of Education to coordinate learning support and policies surrounding inclusive education.

While this array of Acts, provisions and institutional structures engages substantially with disability issues, the lack of unified rights-based legislation that protects and empowers persons with disabilities has resulted in persistent gaps and barriers that infringe on basic rights to access, participation and living with dignity.

Key Challenges to Inclusion

Due to the dearth of national legislation centred on upholding the civil rights and fundamental freedoms of Mauritians with disabilities from a social justice and empowerment lens, attitudinal barriers are widespread. Social stigma, misconceptions, and stereotypes surrounding varied disabilities – be it physical, sensory, intellectual or psychosocial – actively prevent inclusion and access to opportunities.

Communication barriers also remain pervasive, disproportionately impacting Mauritians with hearing, speaking, reading, writing and cognitive disabilities who may communicate differently from societal or spoken norms. Such barriers curtail rights from access to education, healthcare, justice, and civic participation.

Additionally, the lack of accessibility and universal design in the built environment – spanning transportation, buildings, public spaces and facilities – creates physical barriers that severely hamper mobility and participation. Inaccessibility issues are visible across airports, administrative governmental centres, educational institutions, healthcare facilities, commercial complexes, and public transit systems.

The Collective Way Forward

Reasonable and gradual efforts have certainly been made by different governmental agencies and civil society over the years to uplift disability welfare within Mauritius. However, change often remains slow-moving when legislation and national policies do not take a rights-based approach anchored in the dignity, autonomy, non-discrimination and inclusion ethos that the UNCRPD encapsulates.

Concerted steps that can drive systemic change include:

  1. Developing comprehensive disability-focused legislation aligns with the UNCRPD principles to strongly promote, monitor and uphold disability rights and inclusion. Related monitoring mechanisms must substantively involve people with disabilities through their representative organizations.
  2. Enacting and implementing national accessibility standards and guidelines to make physical spaces and transportation universally accessible, with reasonable disability accommodations across sectors.
  3. Incentivizing educational institutions public and private employers to make workplaces accessible, offer vocational rehabilitation where required, and expand professional opportunities for qualified job seekers with disabilities, paired with quotas.
  4. Setting up an apex and autonomous cross-disability National Disability Commission where elected disability representatives play a key role in rights-based policy formulation, legislative reviews, implementation monitoring, complaint redressal and awareness drives.
  5. Launching nationwide strategic communication drives by partnering media, civil society, the disability community and human rights institutions to positively shape societal attitudes and perceptions surrounding disability.
  6. Promoting learning tools in schools that introduce disability studies within the educational curriculum to foster positive social behaviours from early childhood development stages.

With such systems-level changes centred on the human rights framework, legislation alone cannot transform societies into inclusive spaces. That, too, needs multilateral participation and social innovation – where persons with disabilities play a driving role through their lived experiences.

Twin Track Approach

While fighting barriers and driving reform, persons with disabilities within Mauritius must also champion their self-advocacy journey.

Having a disability need not be equated with weakness or a diminished ability to participate. Instead, the unique reality can become one’s strength, the vantage point to make one’s voice heard and shape a fairer society.

By speaking up with resilience, seeking accommodations, and negotiating limitations creatively, self-advocacy fuels self-determination. With self-esteem and confidence thus built, persons with disabilities can construct an identity anchored in ambition and dismantle limiting norms in families, relationships and work – thereby leading change by example. It can inspire families to shift attitudes, urge employers to revisit biases, encourage policymakers to prioritize access, motivate friends to turn sensitive, and allow love to blossom free from prejudice.

The Path Ahead

Change often happens gradually, with efforts and cooperation needed across public and private stakeholders. However, legislative reform remains vital to drive change with persons with disabilities at the centre. The UNCRPD unequivocally places disability rights within a broader human rights and developmental justice paradigm, outlining State duties to uphold dignity, non-discrimination, autonomy, inclusion and participation on an equal basis.

Therein lies the path for fully realising disability rights and welfare within Mauritius. With the participation and voices of persons of disabilities steering the way forward, the dismantling of barriers, unjust norms and disadvantages can pave the way for a more progressive, inclusive and rights-respecting society where diversity in all forms – disabilities included – is embraced wholeheartedly.

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