The Trinidad and Tobago Equal Opportunity Act, 2000

By Dr. Jean Antoine-Dunne

One of the most frustrating effects of any form of disability is the difficulty in finding employment. Most persons who are considered disabled find themselves “employed” in mindless activity if lucky enough to find themselves employed at all. My most shocking experience was my daughter’s first temporary job assignment in Trinidad. The individual who allocated her task handed Eileen a stapler and a bundle of paper and told her to staple the sheets together. There was no reason for doing this. She was merely being kept “occupied.” Have I said before that my daughter taught me to use Excel and that she is better on a computer than I am? She has also completed several third level courses including communications, word processing and photography. This was irrelevant. She has Down Syndrome. As such, her capacity for work and her skills became invisible.

Her case is not unique. For Ancil Torres of the Torres Foundation for the Blind, the horror of our society is that persons who are blind are expected to spend their lives in non-intellectual occupations. Ancil Torres’s father was also blind and became an outspoken advocate for persons with a visual impairment. He is one of the reasons that his son founded the W. R. Torres Foundation for the Blind in an effort to ensure that persons who are blind are not forced to spend their lives as he says, “weaving baskets”.

When I interviewed Torres as part of the research for my documentary on disability he made a startling statement: “The Equal Opportunity Act” he said, “actively discriminates against the disabled.” Needless to say I have since read and re read this act of 2000 with careful attention, and I am forced to admit that he is right.

The right to work is a fundamental human right –not simply in terms of the elevated standard of living that earning good wages brings, but also because of the fulfillment of human potential and the increase in self esteem that a worthwhile career or involvement in work that brings satisfaction can induce. However, many persons who are blind, or are viewed as having a disability are seen to be unemployable in the true sense of the word. There is little if any attempt to match the job to the capacity or talent of the individual.

In fact as Torres pointed out, many blind persons, and this is true of others with disabilities, find themselves working at jobs that do not match their potential for their entire lives, no matter what their individual talents.
One of the functions of The Equal Opportunity Act is to remedy this and the Act refers specifically to those who are deemed to be disabled because of (a) “total or partial loss of a bodily function; (b) total or partial loss of a part of the body; (c) malfunction of a part of the body including a mental or psychological disease or disorder; or (d) malformation or disfigurement of part of the body.

I recently read a section of this Act to a member of a religious community who asked: “What century was this written in?” Yes, in Trinidad and Tobago it is quite acceptable to say to a prospective employee who is visually impaired that his lack of vision disqualifies him for a job because he might bump into a wall or injure himself while employed and there is no burden placed on any employer to verify the feasibility of employing this person, nor indeed is there any moral or legal requirement to make the work place safe and accessible for persons with such impairments. The Equal Opportunity Act leaves such a wide discretionary and subjective loophole that any employer can with laughable ease excuse an act of discrimination against any person with a physical impairment or mental disorder or who might in his eyes not be suitable for his workplace.

This Act after stating the rights of all inividuals and delineating the parameters whereby discrimination can be imputed, then proceeds to list a number of exceptions under the heading of inherent requirements, unjustifiable hardship and risk. The first question that arises in relation to the question of risk is, who defines the nature of a risk in circumstances where a person with a disability seeks employement? Given that many people in our society think that the intellectually challenged are also in some sense dangerous, is it not logical to assume that many prospective employers who may know little about the nature of disability might consider it quite justifiable that a person with limited intellectual capacity might also be dangerous to himself and others? The same subjective judgement may also apply to persons who are blind or visually impaired or who have other forms of physical impairments or who may have a history of mental disorder. Without proper definitions of the words used in this Act severe loopholes remain.

A person who has been trained or schooled in a special school or instuitution may well fall victim to exclusion since it takes no great act of reason to suggest that a specialised caregiving environment is so substantially different from the environment of the workplace that he or she might pose a substantial risk “because of the nature of the disability and the environment in which the person works or is to work or the nature of the work performed or to be performed.”

Incredibly a person with a disability must depend on the goodwill of a potential employer who can claim “unjustifiable hardship”. Any employer can claim that it will cost him money that he says he cannot afford. He can claim that he can get the job done without undergoing such expense. The words “all relevant circumstances of the particular case are to be taken into account” are so nebulous as to be toothless. There are no hard limits set that might work in favour of those who require particular adjustments to the workplace or the work ethos. There are no limits set to require big businesses or employers who accrue real finanicial profit to provide reasonable accommodations. While no one can argue that specific conditions might make it impossible to hire a person with a disability, what are the set conditions whereby a business can claim “unjustifiable hardship”?

Further, the Act imposes no burden of responsibility on either government or private enterprise to ensure that the vulnerable in our society can actually access employment.

In fact the Act leaves the individual open to discrimination based on subjective decisions.

In many parts of the developed world, and Trinidad and Tobago now claims this status, governments have given incentives to employers to encourage the hiring and the training of persons with disabilities. These include carefully monitored projects where persons with disabilities may be employed without the danger of exploitation. One other feature is that of the training and introduction of job coaches.

There is no point in talking about integration or inclusion if individuals are then excluded from worthwhile employment. In effect in Trinidad and Tobago the very law itself seems to be a disabling factor.