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
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.
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!