Bula Vinaka and a very good morning to you all.

I’m delighted to join you here in Nadi this morning to address the 4th Annual Pacific Conference on Disabilities and to welcome you to our shores on behalf of the Fijian Government and the Fijian people.

We have representatives in this room from 20 Pacific nations and territories – as well as from our development partners – and you are all honoured guests in our country.

We hope that not only are these discussions productive and produce tangible benefits for people with disabilities, but that you all also take the opportunity to see more of Fiji and experience our world-renowned Fijian hospitality.

I want to thank the organisers – the Pacific Disability Forum and the Fiji Disabled Peoples Federation – and to also thank the Australian Government for the financial assistance that has made this important gathering possible.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I was especially pleased when I learnt of the theme of this conference, “Partnership and Action Towards a Disability Inclusive Pacific”.

I use the word “inclusive” over and over again in my own speeches because it is a cornerstone of the FijiFirst Government’s policies and programs.

For us, it means that no one should be on the margins of national life at any level. No Fijian should be left behind. No Pacific Islander should be left behind. And this applies especially to those among us living with disabilities and the daily challenges they face that the rest of us can only imagine.

A disability inclusive Pacific means bringing people with disabilities from the margins to the centre of our national lives. It means implementing programs and providing services that cater to their needs. And it also means bringing them from the margins of decision-making to the centre of national policy formulation.

We all know that for far too long, people living with disabilities have been among the most disadvantaged in our societies. Not only here in the Pacific, but throughout the developing world.

Of course, we can’t be judged by the standards of the developed nations when it comes to providing services for people with disabilities. But we can acknowledge that we all have to do a lot more. And I’m pleased to say that finally – in the case of many of our nations – the years of neglect are over.

We are already forging partnerships and taking action towards a disability inclusive Pacific. And I hope that this gathering produces a determination on the part of everyone to redouble our efforts before the next regional conference in two years’ time.

I am proud to report to you all that Fiji has made great strides in bringing people with disabilities in from the margins to the centre of our national life. In this effort, I have been blessed to have as part of my team the Assistant Minister for Youth and Sports, Iliesa Delana. He is a remarkable young man who is also a role model for disabled people everywhere. And he is performing an important task in gaining acceptance in the wider community for the challenges faced by disabled people across our society.

No Fijian will ever forget the image of Iliesa Delana holding our national flag aloft before a vast global audience when he won gold for Fiji at the London Paralympics. It was the first Gold Medal won by a Fijian at any Olympics. So we all took pride in Iliesa Delana’s achievement.

When he returned to Fiji – to great acclaim – I began to think how as a nation we could translate this wonderful achievement into something more lasting for the cause of people living with disabilities. And so I chose him as a candidate for my FijiFirst political movement to run with me in the general election last September that produced the first truly democratic Parliament in Fiji’s history.

After the election, I gave him the role he now occupies, not only to make full use of his talents, but also to act as a continuing symbol of what any person living with a disability can achieve with courage and determination.

All over Fiji, my Minister now visits schools and sporting institutions as a living example of inclusiveness – a message to our young people that those living with disabilities are no different than the rest of us. They may need more assistance, but they are valued, indeed treasured, and deserve all the support we can give them.

But Fiji’s action to promote the cause of disabled people goes way beyond symbolism. Indeed, they form a core section of the Bill of Rights in the Constitution that set up our new democracy of a common and equally citizenry and justice and opportunity for all.

For the first time in Fijian history, we now have a Constitution that specifically sets out the rights of people with disabilities. And allow me to quote from the relevant section:

“A person with any disability has the right to reasonable access to all places, public transport and information; the right to use sign language, Braille or other appropriate means of communication; and the right to reasonable access to necessary materials, substances and devices relating to that person’s disability.

A person with any disability also has the right to reasonable adaptation of buildings, infrastructure, vehicles, working arrangements, rules, practices or procedures, to enable their full participation in society and the effective realisation of their rights”. Unquote.

The Constitution also says in a separate provision that a person must not be unfairly discriminated against – directly or indirectly – on the grounds of his or her disability.

But, Ladies and Gentlemen, we didn’t stop there. We also produced a Braille version of the Constitution to allow those Fijians who are visually impaired to be able to read these provisions – and the rest of our supreme law – for themselves. The Braille version of the Constitution is also available in the vernacular language.

So, my friends, what we have done in Fiji is to go beyond mere platitudes and enshrine the rights of disabled people in our supreme law, from which all other laws flow. It is undoubtedly the most important thing that we have done for people living with disabilities in Fiji – to assert their rights in law for all time.

This is not to say that all of these rights can be implemented immediately. But from now on, the Fijian Government and the whole of Fijian society have a legal obligation to begin meeting these standards.

Of course, we have also done a range of other things, not least establishing the number of people living with disabilities in Fiji through the first ever “National Baseline Disability Survey” we conducted in 2010.

This revealed that almost 11,500 are living with a disability. So we now have a much better grasp of the extent of their needs and how we all need to respond to them and improve their access to services and personal development.

Two years before that, in 2008, we introduced a National Policy for Persons Living with Disabilities, which identified 12 strategic areas to improve their community participation.

And we have instituted range of other initiatives including the requirement for employers to employ two people living with disabilities out of every 50 staff members.

Working closely with the Fiji National Council for Disabled Persons, the Ministry for Social Welfare, Women and Poverty Alleviation has instituted a system of welfare payments to people with disabilities, including monthly food vouchers and free bus travel.

We have even made special arrangements for disabled people in our Natural Disaster Management Plan in recognition that people with disabilities have special needs at times of national crisis.

And we have also extended the available services for disabled people away from our major cities and towns to reach those who need them in other parts of the country. In 2011, for instance, I had the great pleasure to open a new centre for the Fiji National Council for Disabled Persons in our Northern Division.

Of course, we still have a long way to go. But my Government is determined to not only continue its commitment to improving the lives of people with disabilities, but also to extend the services we provide to more remote parts of the country.

In June 2010, Fiji signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It was a wonderful moment and a clear signal of our commitment to upholding the well-being of our disabled population.

We are bringing them in from the margins. We are including them at every level of society and at every level of policy making. So we are already being inclusive in Fiji and we intend to become even more inclusive as time goes by and our economy improves as it rides the wave of optimism and hope generated by our new democracy.

My friends, I urge you all, wherever you come from in the Pacific, to make this Conference count. To examine practical and affordable solutions for the sake of people living with disabilities throughout the region. And to return to your homes with renewed resolve and determination to improve the position of these treasured members of our societies.

Thank you for the opportunity to address you all this morning and I wish you well in your deliberations.
Vinaka Vakalevu – Thank you.