MPs debate raising state disability benefits

Parliament began preliminary debate today on an amendment submitted by Adhaalath Party MP Anara Naeem to the Disabilities Act to raise the monthly allowance provided by the state to persons with special needs from MVR2,000 (US$150) to MVR5,000 (US$324).

Presenting the legislation to the Majlis floor, the MP for Makunudhoo said persons with special needs deserved the same “care and protection” provided by the state to the elderly, referring to the current administration raising old age pensions to MVR5,000 a month in March this year.

Anara suggested that MVR2,000 a month was not sufficient to cover the expenses of children with special needs, who require special care and attention.

“I believe it is very important in the Maldives to determine allowances to the neediest in an equal manner. That is because sometimes a person’s means are not considered when subsidies are given [and] we see subsidies given to rich or well-off people,” she said.

Anara also referred to Article 35(b) of the constitution, which states, “Elderly and disadvantaged persons are entitled to protection and special assistance from the family, the community and the state.”

In some cases, she continued, if medical treatment is provided to children with special needs at infancy, they could “grow up as normal children.”

However, specialised services for children with special needs – such as speech therapy and physiotherapy – were not available in the Maldives, she added, while parents sent children to the special needs school in the capital “only to fill time.”

Debate

While all MPs who spoke in the ensuing debate supported the amendment, Jumhooree Party MP Ilham Ahmed suggested that the government could dismiss a few deputy ministers and coordinators – who he claimed earn MVR35,000 (US$2,269) a month – and use the savings to send specialised teachers to islands.

Progressive Party of Maldives MP Ali Arif noted that there were 5,100 persons in the national registry on persons with special needs, concurring that the monthly allowance should be raised to help parents of children with special needs as they were often forced to stay home to care for the child.

Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party MP Abdul Ghafoor Moosa argued that persons with special needs as well as single parents should receive the same monthly allowance as the elderly.

Ghafoor also urged the government to consider introducing unemployment benefits and a minimum wage, which he suggested should not be lower than state benefits.

In May, hundreds of people gave testimony to the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives’ (HRCM) ‘National Inquiry on Access to Education for Children with Disabilities’.

Parents spoke of the state’s failure to provide medical services and education to children with special needs whilst private services were costly. A single diagnostic assessment costs MVR5,000 and an hour of therapy costs MVR500, neither of which are covered by the ‘Aasandha’ health care scheme.

According to the HRCM, statistics from 2009 indicate that, out of 2250 children with disabilities, only 230 were attending schools at the time.

Citing a 2010 report by the HRCM and the UNDP, the US State Department’s 2013 Human Rights Report on the Maldives noted that “most schools accepted only children with very limited to moderate disabilities and not those with more serious disabilities.”

“Children with disabilities had virtually no access or transition to secondary-level education. Only three psychiatrists, two of them foreign, worked in the country, and they primarily worked on drug rehabilitation. No mental health care was available in Malé. There also was a lack of quality residential care,” the report stated.

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Bill submitted to raise disability benefits to MVR5,000

Adhaalath Party MP Anara Naeem has submitted an amendment to the Disability Act to raise the monthly allowance provided by the state to persons with special needs from MVR2,000 (US$150) to MVR5,000 (US$324).

The stated purpose of the amendment bill (Dhivehi) is to provide financial assistance to families with persons with special needs to seek medical treatment overseas.

While treatment for disabled persons was covered in the government’s ‘Aasandha’ health insurance scheme, the MP for Makunudhoo stated that securing Aasandha in hospitals abroad was difficult for families.

The first reading of the bill took place at today’s sitting of parliament, after which it will be tabled for preliminary debate.

According to local media, Anara has also submitted a petition to parliament for raising the benefits, which has been signed by 54 MPs.

The Disabilities Act (Dhivehi) was passed in July 2010 to provide financial assistance and protect the rights of persons with special needs whilst a national registry was compiled in 2011 with more than 4,000 active members.

Subsidising

The President’s Office meanwhile announced yesterday that the government would cover advance payments for 15 flats in Hulhumalé allocated for children with special needs.

President’s Office Spokesperson Ibrahim Muaz Ali told local media that at MVR18,500 (US$1,199) per apartment, the total cost would be MVR277,500 (US$17,996).

“The government has decided to provide speech therapy, developmental physiotherapy, and occupational therapy both at Vilimalé Health Centre which is being developed as a hospital, and at Dhamanaveshi [in Vilimalé]. It has also decided to provide special seating services for children with disabilities at IGMH,” he was quoted as saying by Sun Online.

In March, the government raised the old age pensions from MVR2,300 to MVR5,000 a month to fulfil a campaign pledge by President Abdulla Yameen and the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives.

National inquiry

In May, hundreds of people gave testimony to the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives’ (HRCM) “National Inquiry on Access to Education for Children with Disabilities.”

Parents spoke of the state’s failure to provide medical services and education to children with special needs whilst private services were costly. A single diagnostic assessment costs MVR5,000 and an hour of therapy costs MVR500, neither of which are covered by the ‘Aasandha.’

According to the HRCM, statistic from 2009 indicate that, out of 2250 children with disabilities, only 230 were attending schools at the time.

Citing a 2010 report by the HRCM and the UNDP, the US State Department’s 2013 Human Rights Report on the Maldives noted that “most schools accepted only children with very limited to moderate disabilities and not those with more serious disabilities.”

“Children with disabilities had virtually no access or transition to secondary-level education. Only three psychiatrists, two of them foreign, worked in the country, and they primarily worked on drug rehabilitation. No mental health care was available in Male. There also was a lack of quality residential care,” the report stated.

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Finance Ministry causes “crisis situation” for Care Society NGO

Lack of government support has caused a “crisis situation” for Care Society, the only institution providing schooling for a diversity of special needs individuals of any age and type of disability.

The Care Society was given a government-owned building in Male’s Heniveru neighborhood with a five-year lease agreement under former President Mohamed Nasheed’s government. The NGO has said it has been seeking a 20-year lease extension from President Waheed Hassan Manik’s government, to no avail.

The lease extension is necessary to secure private funds to rebuild the structure and expand services, but the Care Society has not received a definitive response from the Ministry of Finance and Treasury, despite the Ministry of Housing and Environment granting their approval, Care Society Director Shidhatha Shareef told Minivan News.

“Currently the Care Society works from a private residence donated by a Saudi Prince, but our lease is up at the end of May and we might have to shut down because we have no place to go. It will be a real loss for the children,” stated Shidhatha.

“We have not received any response from the government. The Housing Ministry approved the 20-year lease extension for the new building in writing, but the Finance Ministry has final approval and they still have not provided a definite response. We just want a yes or no answer.”

Shidhatha explained the Care Society has been seeking a “sustainable long term premises” since 2006 and has spent the last four years continually talking to and meeting with government officials. In addition to the Housing and Finance Ministries, they have been in contact with the President’s Office, Vice President Mohamed Waheed Deen, the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM), and the National Disability Council.

“When we spoke to Finance Minister Abdulla Jihad about approving the lease extension he said he would ‘work on it’. Additionally, the Vice President Waheed Deen visited the premises and ‘expressed concern’ because the building is so old.

“Meanwhile, the engineers we’ve spoken to said the structure will have to be rebuilt, even the walls are not worth reusing. Care Society has a number of private investors interested in developing the building, however they are not willing to invest if the lease term expires in 2015.

“Ultimately, the government has an obligation to facilitate the process. They are mandated by the constitution and Disability Act to provide educational services to the disabled,” said Shidhatha.

Care Society has been working for the rights of the disabled for 14 years and established the Care Development Centre in 2001, a ‘special school’ for special needs individuals with all sorts of disabilities, including down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, physical disabilities, as well as the hearing and vision impaired.

This school provides services for any age, ranging from early intervention programs for one year-olds all the way to elderly individuals.

“Care Society runs the only school that caters to a diversity of special needs disorders and any age group,” Shidhatha explained.

“We work with 600 children and people with disabilities regularly, our school currently has 43 students and another 20 children on the waiting list, however we lack the space to accommodate them at this time,” she added.

Currently there are two government schools, Jamaluddin which only caters to the hearing impaired and Imaduddin which offers classes for the intellectually impaired. The problem is their age limitations, as once students exceed age 18 they are sent out of the school, Shidhatha said.

Additionally, the handful of other NGOs working with the disabled persons in the Maldives only address one type of disability or limit their target group age, Shidhatha added.

Care Society’s objectives include promoting rights of disabled people, rights of children and women, capacity building of CBOs and NGOs and assisting victims of natural disasters.

“Responsibility for ensuring disabled rights first falls on government”: Waheed

The Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) began a “National Inquiry on Access to Education for Children with Disabilities” in January 2013.

The study was launched in November 2012 to “look into the practices, policies and laws related to the education for children with disabilities. HRCM will also inquire into the States role in providing for people with disabilities in a non-discriminatory manner, with a special focus on the educational needs of children with disabilities”.

According to the most recent study on the disabled conducted by the HRCM in 2010, there are 2250 children with disabilities in the Maldives that are registered with the government, while only 230 of these children attend school. Overall, 14,100 persons, about 4.7 percent of the population, were found to have permanent disabilities.

In July 2012, the Ministry of Gender, Family and Human Rights and the national Disability Council conferred the Disability Award 2012 to “individuals and organizations working for the rights of the disabled”.

Care Society received an award, which was presented by President Waheed.

Waheed “noted that the responsibility of ensuring the rights of the disabled first falls on the government, and assured that the government was always carrying out that responsibility as best as possible.”

Recent studies by the HRCM – primarily a women’s rights study and children’s participation study – found that lack of access to services were the primary issues discussed by the disabled.

Inadequate special needs schools for children and facilities within existing schools for them, as well as education and mental health service opportunities are of particular concern.

The Finance Ministry, President’s Office, and Housing Ministry were not responding to calls at the time of press.

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