Haiti’s government and charities work to improve access for people with handicaps

October 15, 2012

“Capacity building” — teaching local people to do the work now performed at least partly by foreigners — has been the buzzword of overseas development for two decades. “Build back better” is the buzzword for Haiti reconstruction. Both are in play in efforts to help the country’s handicapped.

For a while after the earthquake, 14 nongovernmental organizations worked with amputees. Many have since left. Handicap International hopes to leave someday, too.

In January, the charity began a three-year, certificate-granting program for prosthetic technicians, run in conjunction with a university in the Dominican Republic. Most of the 32 people enrolled have gotten on-the-job training during the last two years; the certificate program is providing the background they need in anatomy, physiology and theory. The first of three 11-month courses for therapy assistants is also underway.

In May, a local charity, Healing Hands for Haiti, opened its own center in Port-au-Prince, and is taking all new uncomplicated cases.

Meanwhile, Gerald Oriol Jr. is trying to make Haiti never put the disabled completely out of mind.

The son of a Haitian construction magnate, Oriol as a child was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic disease similar to muscular dystrophy. He studied business at the University of Florida and has a master’s degree from Harvard. He uses a wheelchair and often, even in front of small crowds, a microphone.

His office, the Bureau of the Secretary of State for the Integration of People with Disabilities, was created in 2007. He is its second occupant, appointed last October. He used to work at a commercial water-purification company partly owned by the family of Haiti’s president, Michel Martelly. Martelly is also married to his cousin.

“It is a very small country,” he says with a smile.

Even before the earthquake, the disability rights movement was making headway. How much of what’s happened in the last two years would have happened anyway is impossible to say.

Since the earthquake, Haiti’s parliament has enacted a law that requires schools and public buildings to be handicap-accessible. It also says that 2 percent of jobs in companies with more than 20 employees must be reserved for people with disabilities. A local phone company, Voila, has trained about 200 disabled people to fix cellphones and sell airtime to customers. The textile industry has also agreed to employ an unspecified number of disabled people.

The need for more work — for the disabled and for others — is acute in Haiti. Oriol knows it won’t be met soon. But a smaller goal, accessibility, might be if people paid more attention, he thinks.

Along with the German charity CBM (formerly Christian Blind Mission), his office is sponsoring workshops on disability matters. It has held several two-day courses for architects and engineers about how to incorporate handicap accessibility into construction.

In a recent session led by a CBM employee named Benjamin Dard, Oriol was the inspirational speaker before course certificates were handed out to attendees. Afterward, the two men told anecdotes about what Haiti’s disabled people are up against.

Last year, Dard went to an exposition where architects from different countries displayed models of houses that could be the basis for large-scale reconstruction. He’d gone to see whether accessibility had been taken into account in the designs. Both Martelly and former president Bill Clinton were there.

None of the houses were handicap-accessible except for one, which had a ramp to the kitchen. Dard complimented the designers but noted that a person in a wheelchair could get only to that room.

“No, the ramp is for the fridge,” he was told.

In March, Oriol was invited to a dinner celebrating the opening of a new courthouse in Hinche, a town in the Central Plateau three hours from the capital. The building was paid for by the European Union. Martelly was there along with the EU’s development commissioner, Andris Piebalgs. The dinner was on the second floor, and there were no elevators or ramps to get there.

“I think they were quite embarrassed,” Oriol said.

His driver took him in his arms and carried him upstairs.

David Brown

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