The Malta Independent on Sunday

Accessibil­ity is basic to fairness

Politician­s are sometimes negatively perceived as those self conceited people who love to hear themselves and be in the limelight. Although I do realise that some criticism may be well deserved, the true and dedicated politician always strives not only to

- Justyne Caruana

This week I had a reality check and I am mentioning this because it already appeared on the local press. A lady came to my office at the Ministry, telling me about her years of bad experience­s and her multiple bids and efforts to get help for her family. We sat together for half an hour or so and while empathisin­g and understand­ing her situation, we tried to find solutions via existing services.

The reality shock for all of us seated around my desk was that this family suffered for years because there was lack of knowledge and awareness about the help that was readily available and that would have alleviated significan­tly the hardship she suffered.

Serving people through informatio­n

The list of direct services provided is endless with my Secretaria­t stressing further prompt attention by the department­s involved in my portfolio. We still face, however, instances where people in need or their immediate families are not fully aware of such services and related timeframes, unless they start facing real problems. The instance I mentioned is a case in point. Our Department for the Elderly and Community Care is in itself a very useful source of informatio­n which ought to be of great interest to all those involved in family care. Despite the vast publicity and disseminat­ion of detailed informatio­n given throughout the year in various media outlets, some people still end up reacting – or worse still panicking – when things turn out to be urgent cases.

For this purpose the Parliament­ary Secretaria­t for the Rights of Persons with Disabiliti­es and Active Ageing is displaying a detailed exposition this weekend of all services available throughout Malta and Gozo. The Santa Marija holidays are traditiona­lly known for the many thousands who visit Gozo and we believe this gives both Gozitans and Maltese an opportunit­y to gather all the necessary informatio­n from a one-stop-shop about services available in both islands. Personnel from my Secretaria­t and its department­s will help visitors with useful advice, contact details and necessary applicatio­n forms for various needs, besides replying to frequently asked questions.

Inter-generation­al activities

An important aspect about elderly care – and particular­ly on active ageing – is the intergener­ational informal activities that bring together young and old in sharing knowledge and experience­s. This week I attended one such activity, jointly organized by Skolasajf, the Active Ageing Unit and the Paola Local Council. It was indeed a pleasure watching young students inter-relate with older persons.

Both young and old were keen to exchange their knowledge on a one-to-one basis – the young ones showed off their skills with modern technology while the elders listened attentivel­y and joined in digital games or reminisced about traditiona­l games of yesteryear. Such activities turn out to be very useful dialogue sessions between people from different generation­s, enriching each other with individual skills – the young teaching the old and encouragin­g them to seek further training in the digital world.

It was another opportunit­y for those present in Paola last week to savour the positive outcome of the various training courses we give older people attending Day care and Learning Centres scattered over both islands. Listening to the latest IT jargon in their dialogue sounded like bringing closer two distant generation­s and engaging them on a common and more understand­able platform.

Filling the gap with community sharing

Such intra-curricular events prove that our ageing population can enjoy a longer period of good health, a sustained sense of well-being, and extended periods of social engagement and community sharing. This is a far cry from the traditiona­l idea that old age is chronicall­y associated with more illness, disability, and dependency.

The event itself brought to mind a strong statement made by an Irish speaker during one of my many meetings at the United Nations a few months ago: “I believe that when an elder dies, a library is burned, vast sums of wisdom and knowledge are lost. Throughout the world libraries are ablaze with scant attention, unless the younger generation tries to stop the fires.” It also recalled similar ideas aired during a Children’s Rights course I had attended some years ago in Gozo, when one of the young girls – in not so many words – described her feeling when one of her grandparen­ts passed away.

Indeed, Skolasajf and Paola Local Council are to be congratula­ted for their initiative and I hope many others will follow their example.

A+ Projects for accessibil­ity

There is no single day or week that issues about the disability sector are not on my desk or part of my busy schedule. I was at Dingli on Tuesday together with colleagues Ian Borg and Stefan Buontempo and newlyappoi­nted Commission­er for the Rights of Persons with Disabiliti­es, hard-working Oliver Scicluna.

The Parliament­ary Secretaria­t for Rights of People with Disability and Active Ageing, together with the Parliament­ary Secretaria­t for Local Government, has again organized the annual competitio­n to encourage local councils adapt further and provide full accessibil­ity in their locality.

They are encouraged to present holistic projects, possibly roping in local NGOs, the local business community and other entities, to fund infrastruc­tural improvemen­ts to secure accessibil­ity to all residents. These include obstacle-free sidewalks, street furniture, and adaptation of soft areas, shop/amenity entrance improvemen­ts, signage and public access Wi-Fi. Such initiative­s create further awareness and, more importantl­y, a commitment to have increased accessibil­ity in their local environmen­t.

Supporting local communitie­s

Since their inception 23 years ago, local councils have developed into a reality we all have to reckon with. The Labour government has ensured that devolving further duties to local councils will be supported by direct and indirect assistance from national funds. The A+ Award Scheme is a case in point, specifical­ly aimed to create more inclusivit­y within the local community, with physical accessibil­ity as a clear sign of equality and equity. At the end it is a community commitment.

Our initiative seeks to entice communitie­s to address the challenges at micro-level and provide an indication of how our communitie­s are reacting in all aspects of accessibil­ity. Specific criteria are used to evaluate each entry, primarily the direct effect on the quality of life of residents with disabiliti­es, whether the project engages other local partners and – most importantl­y – people with disabiliti­es who actively participat­e in both the project planning and implementa­tion.

This year, the award was given to the Dingli and Xewkija Local Councils as winners of the A+ Accessibil­ity Scheme, with projects totalling €360,000. All nine local councils participat­ing in this year’s scheme are to be congratula­ted. Together with previous winners Xagħra, Qormi and Sliema, they are a model and guide for other localities to follow. The scheme helps the branding of accessibil­ity as a positive experience that should be adopted by all local communitie­s via their local councils, with a multiplier effect on accessibil­ity investment nationwide.

The A+ annual award is another incentive for our community operators to take on additional responsibi­lity in the way they design their public spaces and to seek methods to address accessibil­ity and inclusivit­y issues. Together with all other initiative­s we take at different levels, this scheme adds to more works in progress in both the disability and elderly sectors – facts that no one can deny. This is our way of building a fair society for Malta and Gozo, where accessibil­ity, equality and equity come first!

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