Accessibility for Travelers with Disabilities
Travelers with disabilities will not find Panama an easy country to maneuver around. Accessibility and rights for people with disabilities are new concepts in Panama.
In 1999, Panama passed Ley 42 (Law 42), which guarantees equal opportunity for and makes it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities in employment, education, services, transportation, health services, and so on. That same year, Panama signed the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities.
However, Panama has been slow to enforce compliance with either agreement and other disability-rights laws on the books.
Even in the fanciest hotels and restaurants it’s still unusual to encounter ramps, handrails, and other accommodations for people with disabilities. Ley 42 requires making both public and private buildings accessible, but advocacy groups estimate that to date only about 5 percent of public buildings meet the requirements.
Awareness of disability issues, at least, improved under the Martín Torrijos administration (2004–2009). He and his wife, Vivian Fernández de Torrijos, have a daughter with disabilities. The first lady made the rights of people with disabilities one of her priorities.
In recent years the government has installed ramps and “mainstreamed” some kids in public schools, but facilities are still inadequate. By law, at least 2 percent of a company’s employees must be people with disabilities, but the actual number is nowhere near that, and those with disabilities tend to get paid less than non-disabled people doing the same job. The organization responsible for placing workers with disabilities held a job fair in 2007; 100 companies were invited, but only 8 showed up.
That same year, the government gave greater autonomy and a separate budget to the agency responsible for protecting the rights of people with disabilities, La Secretaría Nacional para la Integración de las Personas con Discapacidad (SENADIS, The National Secretariat for the Integration of People with Disabilities). Funding for disability programs has increased, but it is still modest compared with the need.
The modern infrastructure of Panama City makes it perhaps the easiest place for visitors with disabilities to get around. The abundant elevators and taxis help, though almost all taxis are rather cramped and there are no taxi services geared toward those with wheelchairs. Conditions quickly become difficult in the countryside, particularly in the Darién or any of the island groups, where paved roads disappear, transportation is often by small boat, and it can be somewhat challenging for just about anyone to get around.
Some information on accessible travel worldwide is available at www.access-able.com, though there are no Panama-specific tips.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition