There will be a CARICOM High Level Meeting on Persons with Disabilities and Special Needs this year, and Prime Minister Freundel Stuart said the CARICOM Heads of Government have ???enthusiastically supported??? the proposal to convene the session.

According to Mr. Stuart, the meeting is being held to prepare for the September UN High Level Meeting of the General Assembly on Disability and Development.

The Prime Minister made the comments recently at the opening of the Caribbean Council for the Blind???s Biennial and 46th Anniversary General Meeting at the Amaryllis Beach Resort.

He said the Governments of the region had been playing their part in facilitating access to equal opportunities for the blind and visually impaired. ???Most of the countries of the Caribbean have signed and or ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities,??? he stated.

Mr. Stuart acknowledged that people in the region were still socialised to perceive the blind and visually impaired as belonging to a stereotyped category of persons. ???This often connotes persons of whom we have low expectations, and whom we often try to ???hide away???. The acute discrimination which they suffer is, sadly, still mainly based on ignorance. So, the first requirement to make progress in creating a just society is the dissemination of knowledge and understanding.

??????For us, therefore, every person counts. No individual can be overlooked due to race, class, gender, disability or any other socially imposed classification. Each of our citizens or residents has a valuable contribution to make in Barbados and the countries of our region, and that obviously includes persons with disabilities,??? he remarked.

He gave the assurance that he would do all in his power to clear the pathways to progress for all citizens and residents of Barbados, so they could be included in the nation???s development. ???This must be reflected at the regional level also. We must all follow the sterling example set by this year???s Junior Calypso Monarch in Barbados, Charice ???Honesty??? Walrond, with her winning song entitled ???Respect De Disable???,??? he stressed.

The Prime Minister thanked the Caribbean Council for the Blind for its excellent work in trying to change, through public education, negative perceptions into positive ones. He pointed out that it had assisted regional governments significantly in making progress in medical assistance for the blind and in social inclusion. He added that the Council had been strengthening the bonds between countries of the Caribbean and establishing partnerships with world organisations.

In her address, President of the Caribbean Council for the Blind (CCB), Lola Marson, disclosed that 11 countries in the Caribbean had signed the United Nations??? Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, four had ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention and seven had endorsed the Convention.

???Obviously, our governments need to do more to help the 10 per cent of our population who have disabilities achieve equitable access to social, economic and recreational opportunities. Notwithstanding those challenges, CCB and its members and partners have been able to facilitate very significant improvements in the areas of eye health, inclusive education and Adjustment to Blindness Services,??? Ms. Marson disclosed.

She indicated that more than 130,000 persons in the English and French-speaking Caribbean were blind and three times as many had very limited vision. She contended that more must be done to include them in all of the services available to the wider population across the region.

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