Last month, Jamaican Senator Floyd Morris closed his public lecture at the University of Washington’s Seattle campus with an optimistic yet analytical statement. “I am looking forward to a future that is more inclusive of persons with disabilities in society.”
Morris, who is a member of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, past President of the Jamaican Senate and current Opposition Senator, Special Rapporteur on Disability for the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), and the director of the Centre for Disability Studies at the University of the West Indies, developed glaucoma at age fourteen and became completely blind by the age of twenty. Facing an education system that was unprepared to accommodate him, Morris failed all his secondary school exams, which were administered to him only in written form in spite of his inability to see. Morris eventually resumed his education after learning about and joining the Jamaica Society for the Blind in Kingston, a grassroots association of persons with disabilities dedicated to educating their members.
Of his return to school, Morris describes that, “once individuals saw that I was making progress, the support mechanisms started to grow. And in any inclusive educational system, support mechanisms are quintessential for persons with visual impairment or persons with disabilities in general.” Indeed, as Morris progressed through his education, the institutions at which he was a student adapted to provide increasing levels of support for him as a blind person. He became one of the first blind students to attend the University of the West Indies, where he graduated with an Honors Degree in Media and Communication. Morris then went on to pursue a Master of Philosophy in Government degree followed by a Doctorate in the same field.
Morris has worked and continues to work tirelessly to champion disability rights in all areas of Jamaican society, from academia to politics to daily life. Despite the success he found as a student, and the access to assistive technology that allows him to autonomously perform research and deliver lectures at the University of the West Indies today, he is extremely vocal about the barriers he and others have faced and the persistent shortcomings of academia for those with disabilities. “You don’t have many persons with visual disabilities in the academic space, globally,” he says. “And you have to fight. Academia is a predominantly ableist environment where most of the documents are prepared in printed text, for individuals that are perceived to be, quote unquote, normal.” Even seemingly simple things, like submitting an article online to an academic journal, can be impossible for persons with visual impairments because many websites are inaccessible to screen reading software.
At the level of the university, there is much that can be done to break down barriers that persons with disabilities face, both while in school and in life beyond it. According to Morris, it is not only the job of universities to provide assistive technologies and accessible campuses for persons with disabilities, but also to prepare all students, whether they have disabilities or not, to go forth in society and be aware of and able to support fellow citizens with disabilities. Identifying the University of the West Indies as the preeminent tertiary education institution in the Caribbean, Morris states that it has the power and responsibility thus “to lead the charge in terms of preparing professionals to make sure that in their various spheres of life, respect is given to those individuals with disabilities that they come across. We prepare lawyers, we prepare doctors, we prepare nurses, teachers, managers, and we have to make sure that these individuals are exposed to the various knowledge in their fields as it relates to persons with disabilities.” As director of the Centre for Disability Studies at the University of the West Indies, Morris works to support students with disabilities so that they can thrive in the academic environment and helps to provide all students with a selection of courses, seminars, and conferences on applied disability studies so that they may be more informed on disability studies issues, both as students and as Jamaican citizens. Central to his mission in disability studies is the education of students at UWI about the Disability Act of Jamaica, which he helped write, so that when they graduate they know about the rights that all persons with disabilities have and are prepared to promote them in the workplace and larger society.
Morris has had an enormous impact on disability rights and visibility throughout his political career as a Jamaican senator. “My party has been progressive in terms of including me in the Senate to make sure that there is a voice of marginalized groups, although I was appointed as a senator in my own right,” he says. “But I have taken the opportunity to champion the cause of persons with disabilities. There’s a lot of work that has to be done, in order to make individuals understand that persons with disabilities have the right to participate in the political space, just as anyone else.” Without a doubt, Morris has worked tirelessly to elevate the voices of those with disabilities in Jamaica and protect their unalienable right to participate in the political process, which has traditionally been restricted by various accessibility barriers in society.
Just as the conversation around disability rights extends beyond the microcosm of the university into national politics, so does it reach into the realm of international human rights. Between 2002 and 2006, Senator Morris led Jamaica’s participation in the negotiations for the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Since coming into force in 2008, the Convention has served as an international regulatory and accountability mechanism for disability rights, and today has been signed and ratified by some 185 countries. This has been a critical part of Morris’s work in promoting disability rights, as he insistently champions the importance of having legislation in place to protect the rights of persons with disabilities. “When you have disability-specific legislation, it sets the foundation for fighting against ableism, for abolishing discrimination against persons with disabilities, and allowing for the participation and inclusion of persons with disabilities in their society.” Today, Morris serves on the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which is the UN’s governing body for the treaty and is tasked with interpreting it and monitoring its implementation in states parties to the convention.
Disability rights are an international issue, they are a collective issue, and they are a consideration for all individuals in society to undertake, whether they are living with disabilities or not. Senator Floyd Morris is all too familiar with the barriers that are present in society for those with disabilities, and while he has worked hard to break them down as an academic, an author, and a politician, he is cognizant of the progress that is yet to be made. “I am always moving beyond the boundary in terms of making sure that I get involved in other areas,” he says, “because that is how the transformation is going to come. That is how the change is going to come.”
Morris upholds that change is often slow to spread and believes in the importance of legislation in setting up the framework for positive change to take root gradually and effectively in the realm of disability rights. However, he is also insistent that the individual has more power than they may think in helping to remove barriers and break down ableism in society. “I just want individuals to recognize that disability is not something that is confined to any one individual,” he says. “We have to treat persons with disabilities with respect and treat them the way that we would want to be treated if we should become disabled. So, respect the disabled – all of the time.”