By SASHA D. SMITH
JOB discrimination and limited employment opportunities for Bahamians with disabilities have facilitated in many ways my ability to reflect on the current status of young adults with disabilities who have attained degrees from higher educational institutions. I too reflect on their need for vocational rehabilitation services and the many challenges they face seeking employment.
Since I have experience working with this population, I am privy to some of this group’s higher educational experiences and, therefore, have preconceived thoughts about the phenomenon. For instance, I have very limited hope in The Bahamas and its efforts towards disability inclusion and advocacy. The character of the country is of one that promotes ableist privilege.
An example would be as simple as disability parking spots. Disability parking spots in The Bahamas are not secured specifically for people with disabilities. Most able-bodied Bahamians disregard the fact that a person with a disability may need that parking spot and when they do park in the spot, nothing is done about it. Tickets and fines are not issued.
The attitude surrounding the rights of people with disabilities in The Bahamas is deplorable and alarming.
Another preconceived notion I have is Bahamians with disabilities do not have a voice. For instance, I sought to investigate the work experience of staff with disabilities and approached an employee who used a wheelchair. When asked about their thoughts of working as a wheelchair user, the individual would not share information. The impression was given that they were afraid to speak up about their experience as a person with a disability at their job.
According to the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour (2003), advocates for people with disabilities in The Bahamas complained of widespread job discrimination and general apathy on the part of private employers and political leaders toward their need for training and equal opportunity. They noted there was no general legislation to implement and enforce equal opportunity policies in the workplace, educational institutions, or elsewhere. However, the Bahamas’ Persons with Disabilities Equal Opportunities Act (2014) was passed a few years ago but other than access to buildings (not policed) has achieved very little.
It is important to learn more about the vocational rehabilitation needs of Bahamian transition-age young adults with disabilities and bring new meaning to this phenomenon. The employment needs of transition-age young adults are important, and support is needed to help this population achieve self-sufficiency.
Considering The Bahamas ranks #10 on the cost of living index, according to Global Economy (2022), the maximum monthly of $1,790.68 available for Bahamians with disabilities is insufficient and reason enough to promote the pursuit of post-secondary education and employment among this population. International researchers have found that post-secondary educational pursuits generate significant economic gains and is associated with increased earnings and career mobility.
The absence of vocational rehabilitation agencies or employment services retrofitted for Bahamians with disabilities is problematic. These sorts of services are essential to the needs of transition-aged youths and young adults with disabilities and are needed to assist these individuals who are in pursuit of a productive and self-sufficient life.
Despite this obvious need for vocational rehabilitation support, there are certain challenges and employment barriers stemming from identifying as one with a disability. In general, international researchers found that transition-age youth are often at risk for homelessness, increased incidents of juvenile justice involvement, higher levels of unemployment and a lack of post-secondary education.
Research has found that youth with disabilities are four times more likely to be adjudicated by the juvenile court system than their counterparts of the same age without disabilities. In addition, the incidents of adult poverty are three times higher for young adults with disabilities than for their peers. Further, barriers such as disabling conditions, poverty, and homelessness are additional factors that can have a significant negative impact on a youth’s likelihood of employment into adulthood. Youth and young adults who transition without the proper transitional supports are at higher risk of placing a heavy burden on a country’s limited resources.
Many people with disabilities pursue higher education with hopes of obtaining a degree, financial stability, self-care, quality of life and independence. A college education is considered a prerequisite for leading a fulfilling life. Yet, individuals with disabilities who hold a bachelor’s degree were found to be much less likely to be employed, compared with people without disabilities.
New vocational practices are needed to assist students with disabilities who have graduated from higher educational institutions and are disconnected from employment opportunities because of their disability status. A higher educational institution in The Bahamas offers general career services for its students and alumni but these services are not retrofitted for the special needs of its students with disabilities.
To address the realities of employment issues, the government in partnership with external stakeholders, such as the Department of Labour and the Inter-American Development Bank are working towards increasing employability among Bahamian youths and adults. Is this employment initiative inclusive of Bahamian youths and adults with disabilities? It is important to note that employability of those without disabilities is insufficient in solving the unemployment problem. Transition-age youths and young adults with disabilities can too benefit from vocational rehabilitation supports for academic and post-secondary success.
Young adults with disabilities lack vocational rehabilitation assistance and experience barriers to establishing a career pathway. It would be useful and beneficial to explore the vocational rehabilitation needs of young adults with disabilities who have graduated with their degrees. Research suggests transition-age youths with limited access to supported employment and vocational rehabilitation support are more at risk for unemployment and long-term disability benefits programme.
My hope is to be of assistance and help to this community rather than of harm. I recognise disability is a sensitive topic in The Bahamas so it would be imperative to promote empowerment and inclusivity of persons with various disabilities. I want to highlight the strengths and capabilities of persons with disabilities and position myself as an ally. Increasing self-sufficiency of this population can be life changing. Life changing where avenues will be created for Bahamians with disabilities to achieve positive vocational rehabilitation outcomes and pursue career aspirations whether in the private or public sectors, or as self-employed.
Sasha D. Smith, MS is the former Disabilities and Compliance Officer and Chair for the Students with Disabilities Advisory Board of the University of the Bahamas; and is a rehabilitation counsellor education PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.