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Are we guilty of Ableism?

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Friday, September 29, 2017

In this July 2017 photograph, T&Ts Akeem Stewart proudly adorns the red, white and black after becoming World Champion, and breaking his own world record to claim gold in the men’s F44 javelin at the World Para Athletics Championships at London’s Olympic Stadium in England. PICTURE MARK DAVIDSON

On September 24, 2017, Trinidad and Tobago marked its forty-first anniversary as a Republic. As is customary, the occasion has been marked by the conferral of national honours.

The Down Syndrome Family Network (DSFN), an organisation which advocates for the social inclusion and human rights of persons with disabilities, takes this opportunity to commend all the awardees in their various fields of contribution to Trinidad and Tobago. There is one matter, however, on which the DSFN feels that a public conversation needs to be opened.

In sport, the awardees were Akeem Stewart, Lalonde Gordon, Jarrin Solomon, Jereem Richards, Machel Cedenio and Renny Quow. All six gentlemen won gold medals for Trinidad and Tobago in athletics this year. Akeem had the added distinctions this year of winning gold twice and setting a new world record in the shot put. The record which Akeem broke had been on the books for 20 years. Akeem also won gold and silver medals and twice set a world record for Trinidad and Tobago in 2016. Lalonde, Jarrin, Jereem, Machel and Renny won gold for Trinidad and Tobago in the 4x400m relay.

There are five categories of national awards. In order of rank they are the Order of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, the Chaconia Medal of the Order of the Trinity, the Humming Bird Medal of the Order of the Trinity, the Public Service Medal of Merit of the Order of the Trinity and the Medal for the Development of Women of the Order of the Trinity.

The awardees for sports this year all excelled and brought equal honour and pride to Trinidad and Tobago. In terms of hardware, Akeem’s accomplishments exceeded those of his fellow awardees. Nevertheless, Akeem was awarded the Humming Bird Medal in Gold. Lalonde, Jarrin, Jereem, Machel and Renny were awarded the higher rank of Chaconia Medal Gold.

How does the National Awards Committee account for this difference when the only distinguishing feature between Akeem and the other athletes is that he competed as a para-athlete?

Is this not ableism (Discrimination in favour of able-bodied people)?

The National Awards Committee had a wonderful opportunity to lead by example in changing the way in which persons with disabilities are viewed culturally in Trinidad and Tobago. It missed the mark terribly by ascribing an inferior value to Akeem’s accomplishments for Trinidad and Tobago. We can and must do better as a nation to transform the ways in which we assign lower worth to people who have developmental, emotional, physical or psychiatric disabilities.