Media Statement - Members of the Pacific Islands Forum have been urged to pass appropriate laws and regulations to empower persons with disabilities in the region.

In his opening remarks at the first ever Forum Disability Ministers' Meeting underway in Rarotonga, in the Cook Islands, Deputy Secretary General of the Forum Secretariat, Feleti Teo said: "Appropriate legislative and regulatory frameworks must be enacted and supported to empower people with disabilities to lead free and worthwhile lives and to achieve greater equity for all people."

An estimated 800,000 people in the Pacific live with some form of disability. A good number of these people are the poorest and least able to cope and the most marginalized members of the society.

"People with disabilities in the Pacific region deserve the practical concern of the Pacific community, both by reason of their numbers and more especially for their particular human and social conditions," Mr Teo told the meeting.

He added: "Despite the number of people with disabilities in Pacific societies, there is still a general lack of awareness; not only in terms of what their special needs are; but also a local of acknowledgement of their very existence as an integral part of society. It is this general lack of disability awareness that serves as a barrier to developments that are inclusive of the needs of people with disabilities."

Mr Teo explained that the Disability Ministers' meeting underpins the critical role that States and governments must play in providing leadership in the area of disabilities.

The rights of people with disabilities was given universal and global acknowledgement through the adoption by the United Nations General Assembly of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2006. This came into force in May 2008.

At the Asia-Pacific level, the Biwako Millenium Framework for Action towards an Inclusive, Barrier-free and Rights based society in Asia and the Pacific was adopted in 2002.

Among issues to be discussed at the Forum Disability Ministerial Meeting is a Pacific Regional Strategy on Disability.

The Regional Strategy will provide a regional framework for collaborative efforts to address the issues of people with disabilities and to improve their quality of life; in line with vision of the Forum Leaders espoused in the Pacific Plan for "the Pacific to be a region of peace, harmony, security, and economic prosperity so that all its people can lead free and worthwhile lives".

The Forum Disability Ministers' meeting is jointly funded by AusAID and ESCAP.