Malta has won no gold medal on disability

Can this happen? The way I see things now, no – Mary is probably blocked at step one.

Don’t get your knickers in a twist: this is no criticism of the recent Special Olympics Invitational Games held in Malta a couple of weeks ago. People who are close to Special Olympics have commended the level of the games and facilities, the respectable performance of our athletes and the fun people had when participating.

But, sorry to burst your bubble: we achieved no gold medal from where I stand.

Malta’s gold standard in disability is anywhere close to being achieved. If you had to ask me, I think we have hardly left the starting blocks.

Development in disability issues in this country has come in spurts and trickles. We saw a number of developments back in the 1960s with the development of what was called at the time sheltered workshops and residential homes, read: institutions. Progress, for the time.

Then, silence.

At the end of the 1980s and start of the 1990s, we saw a revamp in this sector, the start of activism, the setting up of the national commission for disabled KNPD, the development of social work services, and the enactment of disability legislation.

And again silence.

It was only after the 2013 election that disability came at the fore with the setting up of a parliamentary secretary, amongst other, responsible for disability issues and from all those involved, steered best by Dr Justyne Caruana. This has now been elevated to a ministry under the Abela government with Julia Farrugia Portelli leading.

But I’ve learnt in social policy that it’s not the reports and strategies that bring about change but the little, teeny-weeny daily things that tell us if things are right. And no, at the risk of sounding off-putting, we still have massive problems on the nitty-gritty.

But where does one start from? The exorbitant fees that professionals charge for assessment and therapy? The overprotective behaviour of some of the parents stopping their children with a disability from having relationships, whether sexual or not? The workplaces that still give tokenistic jobs rather than identifying potential? Jobsplus and the Lino Spiteri Foundation, which have gone off the radar? The fact that our schools are in a conundrum as to whether inclusive education works or not? The never-ending waiting list for people to get a service from government agencies, oh and having to repeat their story a hundred times over?

Or the services offered by our NHS that take place mostly in the mornings when people should be at work and children at school? The lack of accessibility in our communities? The abusive behaviour of people who park in reserved bays and others getting such space when they do not deserve it? The fact that we spend millions of euros on the road network and bicycle lanes, on trees and outdoor furniture but hardly bother to get our pavements right?

The bending of laws galore with chairs, festa apparel strewn all over our sidewalks? The new shops and office space without the mandatory lifts and ramps? The inaccessible Churches, band clubs, banks, government offices, medical centres, historical buildings? The gargantuan cost of buying specialised equipment that drains families of their savings notwithstanding the government schemes?

The fact that there aren’t enough professionals to provide statutory services? The inability of attracting more people to study at higher secondary and tertiary education in this area? The boundless issues of intersectionality that are not being dealt with?

The issue of institutionalisation, whereby it has become easier to plonk people in homes than provide community support? The fact that priests and other community leaders speak down to disabled persons? The lack of voice that disabled children and adults have in Parliament and other institutions? The lack of adequate disabled adult protection legislation?

Where do you start, or rather where does this end? This doesn’t look like gold standard to me.

Whilst events like the Special Olympics might have their relevance apart from the political mileage, in the wider sense of the ‘cause’ nothing is really sorted out.

We need to be careful about being alienated by the glitter. To be honest I still can’t understand why we have ‘special’ and segregated sports events when we should have our sports persons integrated in the many sports clubs we have. I would rather we help these sports clubs mainstream persons with disability and have the government help out with resourcing their facilities – but on that, for another day.

This country has what it takes to get this agenda sorted out.

We have the political infrastructure. We have a highly resourced agency (SAPPORT) with a dedicated CEO at its helm, Oliver Scicluna. We have NGOs dying to make a change and to contribute. We have a Disability Studies Department within the Faculty for Social Wellbeing with some exceptional academics. We have the CRPD run by a conscientious person, Samantha Pace Gasan. We have money being thrown into this sector. We have a strategy, a policy and a decent amount of evidence-based data.

But it seems we lack social governance, the biggest conundrum being the lack of coordination. There is a sense that things will just fall into place – which they don’t. My measure in all of this is very simple: “Mary who lives in the village centre would like to go get money from the ATM, have a coffee in the village café in the piazza and after that pop over to the market, run some errands at the grocer, maybe meet some friends later on and drive back home to prepare for work, as she is on the afternoon shift.”

Can this happen? The way I see things now, no – Mary is probably blocked at step one.