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Onward and Upward for Blind Politicians
by Sara Bennett
Brampton, Ontario, Canada
In light of the upcoming United States presidential election and the recent rise of David Paterson, who is legally blind, to the position of New York state's 55th governor, I thought it would be fun and informative to look at some politicians with vision loss around the world.
For starters, let's go to Jamaica to meet Floyd Morris, who was appointed to the Upper House in 1998 and given the position of Minister of State for Labour and Social Security in 2002, retaining this portfolio in 2006 when his People's National Party was re-elected. Developing glaucoma at age 14 and totally blind by 20, Morris received rehabilitation training from the Jamaica Society for the Blind in Kingston. He placed great value on education and, as his mother was single and raising eight children, he started a chicken business to help finance his higher learning at the University of the West Indies, where he studied communications and became the first person with a disability to be elected to the Students' Guild. During his tenure as Jamaica's Minister of State for Labour and Social Security, Senator Morris has overseen flood relief projects and programs for the elderly, as well as being active in implementing the Programme for Advancement Through Health and Education (PATH), intended to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty, by helping parents with expenses to ensure their children attend school and get regular health checks. Morris has also been instrumental in developing and administering programs for the disabled, including an education and adaptive aid fund and an information technology project. Jamaica's commitment to promoting the social and economic equality and independence of citizens with disabilities is seen in its National Disability Policy (2000) focusing on education, vocational training, employment, accommodations, communications, housing and accessibility, political and civil rights, family life, culture, and sports and recreation--and its National Disability Act, on which Senator Morris traveled throughout the country in 2007 holding consultations with disabled Jamaicans. It's also evidenced in Jamaica's signing and ratifying of the United Nations International Convention for the Protection and Promotion of the Rights and Dignity of Persons with Disabilities. In fact, Jamaica was the first to do so, and Senator Morris was one of two representatives of the Latin America and Caribbean regional group to help draft the Convention. According to the Jamaica Gleaner's article, "Senator Floyd Morris: 21st Century Man," September 21, 2003 ( www.jamaica-gleaner.com ), Senator Morris likes people, as his political achievements and "on the ground" consultations with the populace show. According to the newspaper, "This 'aptitude' has helped him to exceed the expectations of critics." Appropriately enough, he can often be found visiting the nation's schools giving motivational talks. For more information about Morris or Jamaica, check out Jamaican Information Service at www.jis.gov.jm.
Let's spin the globe now to Malaysia in Southeast Asia. Here, in 2007, at the age of 60, Prof. Datuk Dr. Ismail Md Salleh became the first blind person appointed as a member of the Dewan Negara, Malaysia's parliament located in Kuala Lumpur. It is noteworthy to mention that, of the 70 members of the senate, 26 are elected by state assemblies and 44 are appointed by the king, with certain criteria influencing the monarch's choices. The article "Dr. Ismail Charts History As Malaysia's First Blind Senator," published in the New Straits Times, December 18, 2007 ( www.nst.com.my ), says, "Appointed persons must have rendered distinguished public service or have achieved distinction in the professions, commerce, industry, agriculture, cultural activities or social service, or are representative of minorities." Not surprisingly, then, Ismail is President of the Malaysian Association for the Blind ( www.mab.org.my ), an organization established in 1951 that offers rehabilitation courses, vocational training and placement services, a braille and talking book library, information technology center, public education initiatives and prevention of blindness programs. He is also chairperson, East Asia Region, for the International Council for Education of People with Visual Impairment ( www.icevi.org ). Additionally, he serves as Twintech Holdings' chief executive officer and Twintech International University College of Technology's vice-chancellor. Totally blind from age 13, Ismail earned a bachelor's degree in economics and political science from New York University and a master's in economics from the University of Illinois, where he was also conferred a doctorate. Speaking of his political appointment, Ismail says it's a sign of Malaysia's commitment to those with disabilities. He would like to hold a congress for all disabled people to identify major issues affecting them, particularly women and people with mental disabilities, and to find relevant solutions. Ismail is a father of six children.
Our next stop is the United Kingdom, where Gordon Brown has been Prime Minister of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland since June of 2007 when his predecessor, Tony Blair, resigned. A Member of Parliament from 1983 and Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1997 under the Labour Party Government, Brown earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, where a rugby injury in his teens caused retinal detachments, leaving him blind in his left eye and with just 30 percent vision in his right. Brown's achievements as Chancellor of the Exchequer include giving the Bank of England independence in setting monetary policy, overseeing development of economic tests to determine the efficacy and advisability of Britain adopting the Euro as its national currency and expanding government spending on health and education. As Prime Minister, his efforts have included giving more power to parliament, like in declaring war and increasing the availability of doctors, such as in the evenings and on weekends. To learn more about Prime Minister Gordon Brown, go to the British Broadcasting Corporation's Web site at www.news.bbc.co.uk .
Are you curious about other politicians with disabilities, including in the United States? Visit http://politicalgraveyard.com/special/disabled.html .