Laura Hershey: Writer, Poet, Activist, Consultant Rotating Header Image

More about Haiti and Disability…

I wrote last week about Portlight Strategies Inc., which is mobilizing aid to Haitians, especially those with disabilities, in the aftermath of the earthquake. Portlight is continuing to collect emergency supplies and equipment, for shipment from Atlanta to Port-au-Prince. The group still needs money and publicity to carry out its important work. If you want to help, click here or call 843-817-2651.

The U.S. disability community has rallied to try to assist our Haitian counterparts. My friend T.K. Small, a Brooklyn attorney with a physical disability, has spent many hours during this last week making phone calls and writing e-mails, educating and urging people to support Portlight. Dozens have responded, and have spread the word even further. In addition, the Institute on Disabilities at Temple University has launched a Haiti Disability Response effort, in conjunction with Portlight, to obtain priority items such as crutches, walkers, canes, splints, ramps, and medical supplies.

Meanwhile, another major development is happening with the Haitian disability community: It is growing exponentially. Amid all the deaths, a still untold number of residents are surviving with serious injuries, such as crushed arms and legs, and infected and gangrenous wounds. Doctors, operating under incredibly difficult conditions, have had to amputate limbs from as many as 200,000 people. These doctors have been saying that the earthquake is creating “a generation of amputees.”

Life with a disability is extraordinarily difficult in Haiti, according to some accounts. A report in the St. Petersburg Times quoted a nursing student who lost a leg after a wall fell on her: “There is no place in Haiti for people like me. Without my leg, I am a freak. Cripples are rejected here. I was going to be the first person in my family to make it out of poverty, but now that’s over. An amputee is not allowed in school.”

I never like to generalize about other cultures’ views about disability. Instead, I prefer to listen to the voices of disabled people who live within those cultures, and who have developed their own analyses of the issues and the context.

However, it’s a fact that disability experiences are shaped by social conditions, and it’s hard to imagine conditions worse than what Haitians face now: crushing poverty, mass homelessness, food and water shortages, and devastated infrastructure. We still need to pay attention to, and support, the short-term needs of a people and crisis — but we must also think long-term about the rights and well-being of this new “generation of amputees,” as well as Haitians with other physical and mental disabilities.

One group that will contribute significantly to disabled Haitians’ quality of life — as it has brought positive benefits to many other countries — is Whirlwind Wheelchairs International. Whirlwind has earned international recognition for designing wheelchairs that can move through difficult terrain, and can be repaired easily using readily available materials. In various parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, Whirlwind has helped establish workshops that train and employ disabled people to build the chairs for their communities. Whirlwind’s work is philosophically sound, person-centered, and pragmatic. Now, Whirlwind is raising money to ship wheelchairs from its Mexican factory to Haitians who will need them.

Americans should continue giving generously, and always respectfully. Let’s not leverage our largess to lecture Haitians on the proper attitude toward disability. Let’s ensure that our aid programs don’t discriminate, or deny access, thus aggravating disabled people’s isolation.

The growing number of Haitians, on one hand, may mean increased hardship and financial costs to individuals, families, and society as a whole. On the other hand, it may also lead to increased awareness, acceptance, and integration. Disabled people will never again be (if they ever were) a tiny, hidden minority. Every family, every neighborhood, will have members who are disabled. Out of this prevalence may grow solidarity.


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