Haiti: "The first to be forgotten" reclaiming dignity

Monday, July 12, 2010

  • Marlene DerleyMarlene Derley is using her ACT grant to restart a small restaurant business at home.
  • Man in wheelchairParticipants in ACT-supported program for people with disabilities gather in Port-au-Prince.
  • Haiti: six months laterParticipants in ACT-supported program for people with disabilities gather in Port-au-Prince.
  • Young boyA young boy at a gathering of people participating in persons with disabilities program in Port-au-Prince, sponsored by ACT.
  • Young womanA young participant in the ACT program for persons with disabilities in Port-au-Prince.
  • Woman in wheelchairParticipants in an ACT program to assist people with disabilities in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

By Chris Herlinger

Port-au-Prince, Haiti – In a city where mobility is difficult even for able-bodied people – given the pressures of traffic, extreme residential congestion and now, the perils and hazards of debris and rubble – a monthly celebration at a church here has come to represent a triumph for Haitians like Marlene Derley.

"It means a lot to me," Derley, 39, said of a recent gathering sponsored by ACT Alliance member Church World Service for those in a program to assist and empower people with disabilities. "It has given me the first opportunity to meet other people," she said. "Otherwise I would stay at home and just think about my injury."

Derley, an amputee who lost her right arm after a building collapsed during the devastating January 12 earthquake, was referring to the ostracism people with disabilities in Haiti often face – and the particular strain felt by those, like herself, who are newly disabled in the wake of the quake.

"It's very difficult," Derley said on the grounds of the Tabernacle of Faith Congregation just days before Haiti marked today's (July 12) six-month anniversary of the earthquake. "People with disabilities don't have much importance in society."

By contrast, the monthly celebrations – replete with music and singing – are a way for Derley and others to come together, celebrate accomplishments and build a much-needed sense of community.

But the ACT programme is not only about providing community and a safe space against the harsh realities of being disabled in Haiti; there is a needed material aspect to the programme. Participants receive a modest monthly stipend, US $75 a month for six months, to help them get through the current difficult times. The programme began in March. When it ends later this year, 1200 people will have participated, and the programme will have benefited not just individuals but their families as well.

For the Saturday celebrations, buses pick up the participants and return them to their homes. That in itself is significant, said Burton Joseph, CWS's program manager in Haiti, noting that in general those operating public transportation in Haiti appear to dislike picking up the physically disabled. Why? Joseph said they are seen as people who slow down traffic.

"No place in society is reserved for them," Joseph said of people with disabilities. "Even at church, there are no ramps for wheelchairs."

During humanitarian emergencies, "the disabled are the first to be forgotten," said Ernst Abraham, head of CWS partner Service Chretien d'Haiti. "That is why we decided to make their needs a priority."

That decision is paying off in small but vital ways. Derley is using her ACT grant to restart her small restaurant business at home – a much-needed boost since she and her family are depending on the restaurant income. Derley’s husband, a former factory worker, is at home to help her and raise the couple's 9-year-old daughter.

"We depend on the money from the restaurant," she said, explaining that the grant is helping restock supplies, all of which were destroyed in the quake.

Aaron Tate, who is coordinating CWS efforts in Haiti, says many of those in the programme are, like Derley, using their grant to help get their businesses restarted. Others are using it to buy food. Still others are using it to pay for their children to go to school - or for themselves to go to school, to get education and improve their future.

Still, they will likely confront more than their share of challenges and difficulties. People with disabilities remain some of the most at-risk residents of Haiti, Tate said. They have faced greater challenges in adapting to new living conditions, such as tent cities for the displaced, and they have difficulty accessing relief assistance in general.

"When it comes to standing in line, to get a delivery of rice or to get on the list to get a new house," Tate said, "people with disabilities are always going to be the last in line."

Locia Toutpuissant, 42, another ACT programme participant, agrees with that assessment, saying that "it's not easy to cope with a disability, and we've been neglected so much in society, making it hard for us to get by."

Toutpuissant, a shopkeeper who sells small items and groceries, lives with a spinal condition that affects her ability to walk – a condition, incidentally, inherited by all six of her children, ages 3 to 21.

She said that "getting by" has not gotten any easier since the quake. She, too, lost her inventory in the quake. "I had a small business but it became a nightmare.". However, the cash grant has softened the blows, helping Toutpuissant feed her children and restock her store’s inventory.

As for the monthly celebrations, Toutpuissant said she cherishes the time with others, calling them “welcome moments of pleasure.”

"We felt humiliated before," she said. "Now, I don't feel lonely like I used to."

Haiti: after the earthquake

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