Finally, the National Assembly passed the Disability Bill on Tuesday 6 July 2021, after more than 10 years since the bill was first drafted. I hope that within the shortest possible time the president will sign the bill into law to signify that indeed the Gambia is an equal and just society for all. The Constitution of the Gambia envisages a society in which all citizens are equal in rights and dignity with the right to equal opportunities. This means the laws, institutions and services in the country should serve and be delivered to all without any form of discrimination by design or be default.
Section 1 subsection 2 of the Constitution of the Republic of the Gambia states that the sovereignty of the Gambia lies in the people of the Gambia, and that public institutions derive their legitimacy and authority from the people and perform their functions on behalf of, and for the welfare of the people. Hence, all Gambians are equal as sovereign citizens regardless of disability, tribe, religion, political orientation, age or sex among other statuses. This means the Government has a duty to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of all Gambians.
Section 33 of the Constitution stipulates that all Gambians are equal before the law and that no one should be treated in a discriminated manner by public institutions and officials. Since the State – as in public institutions – are the ones mandated primarily to protect all rights of citizens as set out in Section 17 of the Constitution, it therefore means persons with disabilities, having the same rights as every other citizen, must also enjoy all of the public goods, facilities and services provided by public institutions.
It also meant that all private businesses, CSOs, individuals and indeed any entity in the Gambia has a duty to ensure that persons with disabilities enjoy or access the same goods and services they deliver or sell to any other citizen. Failure to ensure that persons with disabilities enjoy or access these goods and services simply because of their disability means there is discrimination.
For example, if a GSM company is providing an automated message to users, it must bear in mind that some phone users are visually-impaired, hard of hearing or unable to talk hence that company must ensure that its products and services are packaged in another form such that a person with any form of disability could directly understand the message when using her phone.
Sometimes, because a certain level of disability may not allow for direct and full participation with others to a certain level, it is necessary in those cases that events, services and facilities be created for those disability communities on their own so they enjoy their rights. One example of such is the special Olympics. At the minimum, all stakeholders must ensure that there is reasonable accommodation in the goods, services, facilities, events and activities they deliver so that persons with disabilities could also enjoy them to the largest extent.
The passing of this bill therefore can be considered to be a recognition that indeed all citizens are equal members of society. In society, people belong to various communities such as male and female, young and old, ethnic groups, religions, political parties, regions, and bearing different names and origins. This shows that diversity is the nature of society and human beings, hence a right. This diversity is the cornerstone of unity since unity presupposes difference. Hence difference does not mean less or low, rather difference only shows the diversities that exist in society which must be recognised, protected and supported.
By passing this bill, the Gambia has given practical meaning to the concept of equal sovereignty of all citizens. Having had the Children’s Act and the Women’s Act, the Disability Act will now complete the idea of equality in society for all sectors of the population. These laws recognise that there are some sectors of the population who are marginalised because of age, gender and disability based on certain sociocultural beliefs. For that matter these laws are created to protect rights. But also, they highlight the need for the removal of oppressive, exploitative and discriminatory social and cultural beliefs and practices that have lived within this society for so long.
Discrimination based on any status is oppressive, exploitative and violent. A civilised and democratic republic cannot entertain ideas, relationships, structures, and processes that hold that some are more equal than others just on account of their diversity or status. Hence, as a Republic since 1970, the Gambia should have had a disability law as well as laws protecting children and women and other marginalised groups since the first day of independence.
Now that the law is passed and expected to be assented to by the President, latest by 7 August 2021, one must emphasise that the full implementation of this law shall not take that long as the making of the law itself. In other words, it is not enough to recognise the exclusion and marginalisation of these groups by creating this law, but that the Government needs to go further to realise their rights by enforcing the laws in full at all times within the shortest time possible. Therefore, it is also necessary that the Gambia Government undertakes urgent and comprehensive efforts immediately to review other laws as well as reform institutions to ensure that they are all disability compliant. It is also necessary that private enterprises, communities, businesses and individuals are made to understand this law and abide by it.
In this regard there is a need for a comprehensive national disability survey to ascertain the state of disability in the country. A disability assessment is necessary to determine the kind of disabilities that exist, hence the kind of support services to deliver in meeting the rights and needs of persons with disabilities. Such data collection must be continuous, consistent and comprehensive. It is a shame that since the last disability survey in 1998 no such survey has ever been conducted in this country until today. The rights of persons with disabilities cannot be protected in the absence of correct and up to date data.
The implementation of this law is not merely a Government obligation. Rather, it is both a legal and moral duty on each and every person and entity in the Gambia to ensure that this society is just, equal and without any form of discrimination. Not only is it a matter of justice and right, but it serves the overall social and economic wellbeing of the Gambia to have a society where all citizens have the opportunity to grow to their fullest potential in order to live life of dignity and be able to contribute their quota to national development.
Any society that claims to be civilised, God-fearing and well cultured must ensure that justice, equality and freedom prevail and shower on all of its citizens, equally. A society in which one citizen could start the race of life one line in front and another on the line at the back simply because of their diversity is an unjust and unfair society. Remember, anyone could become disabled at any time in your lifetime on account of accident, sickness or by some other condition. When that happens, one would wish there is a just system to enable you to overcome your difficulties and challenges and access opportunities to reach your fullest potential and ability.