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Vital trip for disability rights advocate

Campaigning for equality: Jeanne Atherden, the Minister of Health, left, and US Consul General Mary Ellen Koenig, right, present Kelly Madeiros with a certificate marking her participation in the International Visitor Leadership Exchange Programme. (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

The US Consulate’s first participant in the International Visitor Leadership Programme, Kelly Madeiros, has outlined the expertise she gained during a three-week visit to America exploring disability rights.

She was selected as one of 20 people from around the world to visit four states and meet numerous disability leaders as part of the trip, funded by the Department of State.

Ms Madeiros, a co-ordinator at the Department of Court Services, was instrumental in developing and implementing the Mental Health Treatment Court pilot programme and sits on the Disability Advisory Committee.

“Not only did we get to meet leaders of disability rights from all over the US, but also got to work with disability leaders from all over the world,” she said. “Throughout the three weeks we learnt about the hard work, the civil unrest, the dedication and the determination of people who would not be quiet until the rights of people with disabilities were heard and protected under the now 26-year-old America Disabilities Act.

“This Act has changed the lives of many but there is still work to do.”

During the exchange, titled “Access for All: Enhancing the Lives of People with Disabilities”, which took place from March 28 to April 15, Ms Madeiros visited Washington, Vermont, Illinois and California.

She met Judith Heumann, an international leader of the disability movement and a special adviser for the Department of State, who gave an overview of the Americans with Disabilities Act and outlined disability rights challenges worldwide.

She also met representatives from the US International Council on Disabilities, the adviser on disability issues at the White House, and representatives from the Vermont Centre for Independent Living, a non-profit organisation directed and staffed by individuals with disabilities. US Consul General Mary Ellen Koenig said: “Kelly and the other participants looked at services and facilities at multiple centres for independent living, visited schools and universities to discuss support for full access and integrated design in admissions, academic support, and training of staff, and saw sports, arts, government and local community facilities to observe their accessibility.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Kelly to focus on programmes for people with disabilities and to share the best practices here in Bermuda with her global colleagues.”

Ms Madeiros said one of the biggest areas of discrimination for people with disabilities was employment, with 70 per cent of people with disabilities being unemployed or underemployed.

“During our visit to the University of California, the director of disabled student programmes described disability as ‘normal’,” she said. “He reminded us that within our lifetime we can acquire a disability. He said employment was the truest measure of equality.

“For every country of the 20 in the group the main issue was employment for those with disabilities. People with disabilities, although they are differently abled, are very able and it would be great to have more exposure to people with disabilities.”

Accessibility is also an issue that needs to be addressed, she said, as well as advocacy and adequate legislation.

“One of the most popular messages that we received from the disability leaders is that civil society has an important role to play in advocating for the rights of people with disabilities,” she added. “They encouraged us to bring our community together to ensure that people with disabilities have equal accessibility.

“It is critical that laws are implemented and enforced to ensure that people with disabilities are not being discriminated against and there is an active body whose job is to enforce compliance with anti-discrimination laws.”

Ms Madeiros is happy to meet anyone who wants to learn about the programme.