Jr., Haitis Secretary of State for the Integration of Persons
with Disabilities, has no shortage of education: He holds degrees
from the University of Florida and Harvard. He also possesses a wealth
of public, private and nonprofit experience. Still, President Michel
Martellys decision to appoint Oriol, who has spinal muscular
atrophy, represents a paradigm shift for a nation that has largely
ignored its disabled population.
Since the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010, the nation
continues to face a litany of challenges, including reconstruction,
unemployment, and cholera outbreaks. Yet Oriol is determined to keep
disability rights front and center during the nations recovery.
In 2011, as Texas Christian Universitys international advisor,
I spent a week with Oriol in Port-au-Prince, the countrys capital,
visiting the sites of his nonprofit, Fondation JAime Haiti [I
Love Haiti Foundation]. Later, when Oriol was appointed Secretary,
I helped him identify partners for his agency, reviewed grant proposals,
and performed other supportive tasks.
On the one year anniversary of Oriols appointment, I returned
to Port-au-Prince for a visit. What follows is a diary of my trip:
Friday, October 19, 2012
Our morning commute to the office was a series of fits and starts
as Yovens, Oriols driver, skillfully weaved our SUVfully
loaded with government plates, tinted windows and a blaring sirenthrough
the flow of pedestrians, tap-taps and other vehicles that animated
the narrow, congested arteries of Port-au-Prince.
With the radio tuned to a talk show, Oriol divided his attention between
callers commenting on current events, and people milling by on the
streets. He sought to glean some sense of the days political
climate in a nation with 40 percent unemployment, rising food costs,
and a Gross Domestic Product of $1,200 per capita. Periodically, Yovens
long arm reached over and removed a small cellphone from Oriols
shirt pocket and placed it in the Secretarys right hand so he
could talk to a government colleague, friend, or representative from
a Western NGO. Oriol effortlessly switched from French to Creole to
English as needed.
Forty-five minutes later, Yovens beeped the horn at the iron gates
of the office, which is referred to locally as BSEIPH, where an armed
guard let us pass through and then quickly closed the gate behind
us. The Haitian government rented this property because the office
it leased in Canapé Vert was destroyed in the 2010 earthquake
that killed more than 200,000, injured tens of thousands, and left
roughly 1.5 million homeless. The temblor essentially disabled the
Haitian government by decimating its downtown offices and claiming
the lives of an estimated 20 to 25 percent of the countrys civil
Parked inside the compound, Yovens lifted Oriol from the SUVs
passenger seat, settled him into his wheelchair, and helped him roll
into the building. After introducing me to a handful of staff, Oriol
provided an overview of the bureau, which included a reception area,
conference room and work areas for approximately 30 employees. He
recently approved construction of a small television studio within
the facility so his communications department could create educational
videos, public service announcements, and news segmentsa smart,
long-term move that should ultimately free BSEIPH from its financial
dependence on NGOs for awareness campaigns.
A year had passed since my previous visit to Haiti, so Oriol sent
me back out with Yovens to spend the next five hours in the capitalon
foot and by cargathering information for a comprehensive assessment
Nearly all the piles of rubble in the capital, which once impeded
traffic and street vending, were gone. New construction and renovation
were cropping up throughout the city, and the Neg Mawon statue, which
last year had blue refugee tents from the Peoples Republic of
China tethered to it, had been restored and once again represented
a dignified monument to Haitis freedom. Even in Champs de Marsthe
verdant park beside the presidential palaceschool children now
played where quake displaced people once sought refuge.
At the end of day one, the Secretary asked for my opinion of Haitis
recovery efforts. Despite some noticeable improvements, unemployment
remained high. Its hard to tell someone living in a tent
that 5.5 percent GDP growth is pretty good, I responded, a reference
to the 2011 statistic from the World Bank.
He nodded and replied, The people are running out of patience
and I can certainly understand that, but the truth is Haiti has made
some tangible progress over the past year. He was right. According
to the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America
and the Caribbean (UNECLAC), Haitis GDP grew faster than that
of any other Caribbean nation in 2011, and in December of 2012, the
International Monetary Fund projected Haitis GDP, which increased
by 2.5 percent in 2012, would increase by 6 percent to 7 percent in
2013. Despite the progress, more than 350,000 capital residents remained
in temporary shelters, and countrywide protests against the Martelly
administration appeared to be increasing. The fate of the Haitian
government was hanging in the balance: Could it continue to develop
the economy and resolve lingering problems at a pace that satisfied
its massive numbers of unemployed and displaced citizens?
Saturday, October 20
Even before his appointment to Martellys cabinet, Oriol advanced
the conversation on disability through his nonprofit, Fondation JAime
Haiti. He partnered with the United Nations between 2007 and 2008
on a national awareness campaign that allowed the young activist to
travel to remote regions of the country in large, UN transport helicopters.
For the disabled in these communities, seeing Oriol emerge from the
helicopter in his wheelchair was a reassuring surprise. In 2010, his
organization started a business development program in Port-au-Prince,
Cap Haitien, Hinche, Jacmel, Jeremie and Les Cayes, to train people
with disabilities to work in sales for what was the nations
second largest cellphone carrier at the time. Participants also received
small grants to start a secondary business, usually selling refreshments
along with the cellphone minutes.
Of the approximately 150 people in the program outside of Port-au-Prince,
only one had funding removed for poor performance, while sales figures
by vendors with disabilities often matched those of individuals without
disabilities within the same markets. In his official capacity as
Secretary, Oriol hoped to revive and expand the vendor program for
disabled citizens with Digicel, the nations largest carrier.
On weekends when Oriol was not traveling as the head of BSEIPH, he
caught up with his non-profit work. On this particular Saturday morning
we visited Sainte Marie, a small community in southern Port-au-Prince
that was badly damaged during the quake.
There, JAime Haiti and the Shree Prajapati Association, a British
nonprofit, constructed a 10 computer cyber center, which served approximately
250 youths on a rotating schedule. Throughout the morning, Oriol wrote
checks for some bills owed on the facility. He also met with parents
of students who received scholarships to attend some of the areas
elite elementary and high schools. The program, LEspoir par
lEducation [Hope Through Education], which JAime Haiti
managed, was sponsored by Sporting Chance Foundation, the nonprofit
of former MLS soccer star, Seth Stammler.
That evening on the drive home from Sainte Marie, I leaned forward
from the back seat and asked Oriol if the earthquake was a turning
point for people with disabilities in Haiti. He pondered the question
for a few moments then carefully responded: The earthquake helped
raise awareness on disability in Haiti... It sparked greater interest
from the international community and from agencies working in Haiti,
to work in the field of disability. Perhaps it helped change the mentality
in the country as well, and now, more and more, disability is viewed
as a social challenge, whereas in the past it was seen more as a medical
Like so many in Port-au-Prince, Oriol lost friends in the quake. On
the afternoon of January 12, 2010, he attended a meeting on disability
at UN headquarters inside the Christopher Hotel. He left the meeting
late that afternoon, and when the ground trembled at 5 pm, the hotel
was among the thousands of buildings that collapsed instantly. More
than 100 UN personnel lost their lives, including some who were in
the meeting room Oriol had just left. In a few tragic minutes, the
number of people with disabilities in Haiti increased by thousands.
Over the next several days, Oriol and his driver traversed the debris
filled streets of Port-au-Prince in a pickup truck, delivering survivors
to medical facilities and collecting bodies of the dead. From that
experience, Oriol recognized the impact another quake could have on
Haitis over populated and vulnerable capital. For that reason,
Oriols agency partnered with Handicap International and the
Organization of American States (OAS) in Fall 2012, on a training
workshop for emergency responders and relief agencies to address the
special needs of persons with disabilities during a natural disaster.
Monday, October 22
At 9 am, Oriols office buzzed with activity. BSEIPH and a Brazilian
delegation were presenting a five day disability training program
for 30 Haitians from throughout the country who worked for NGOs. Earlier
in the year, the BSEIPH Brazilian team conducted a similar training
for a group of Haitis civil servants. The Brazilian government
also collaborated with the Ministry of Public Health on construction
of an Institute for Rehabilitation in Bon Repos, about 45 minutes
north of the capital, which will provide much needed services to persons
with disabilities, as well as training for professionals working in
the field of rehabilitation. BSEIPHs partnership with the Brazilian
government reflected a larger trend of the Haitian government expanding
its foreign relations with states in the Caribbean, Latin America
and even the African Union.
On Monday afternooneven though he was just in the other roomOriol
and I traded emails about an official census that The Haitian Institute
for Statistics and Information (IHSI) planned to conduct in 2013.
It was a big deal for Oriols agency, which relied on extrapolations
for its disability figures. Those estimates placed Haitis disabled
population at 900,000, or approximately 10 percent. The general consensus
was that the estimated figure might be low, as disability rates in
developed countries typically fall in the 15-20 percent range.
The upcoming census offered a unique opportunity to capture accurate
data on disability, but only if designed properly. To ensure that
it was, Oriol enlisted the services of Sophie Mitra, PhD a Fordham
University professor from New York who specializes in applied microeconomics;
shes also worked with disabled communities in South Africa,
India and Vietnam.
The Fordham economist uncovered a potential flaw with the census as
drafted because its current disability oriented questions were geared
towards impairment rather than factors that limit activity. They measured
blindness, deafness, mental retardation and paralysis, while more
accurate measures would focus on limitations in the activities
of daily life such as bathing, dressing
going outside the home,
work or housework for working age persons, and school or play for
children, Mitra said.
Most developed nations followed the social model of disability, which
used activity limitations measures, while Haitis draft census
questions were a product of the antiquated medical model that only
measured obvious impairments. Oriol planned to present these observations
to his IHSI colleagues in an upcoming meeting.
Tuesday, October 23
I visited Saint Vincents Center for Handicapped Childrenor
what remained of it. During the quake, seven children and three staff
died at the primary campus in downtown Port-au-Prince, and the facility
sustained heavy damage. The center was temporarily relocated to a
dormitory two blocks away. Though crowded, it continues to provide
much needed services to approximately 300 young people with disabilities.
Oriol hoped to build a handful of these kinds of centers throughout
the country, and Saint Vincents was the closest thing he had
to a working model. The Secretary recognized there was a long-term
risk if his agency assumed such services as educating and housing
children with disabilities: it potentially released his government
colleagues from their obligation to provide these services to all
the countrys citizens as required by Haitis new law on
disability. As such, Oriol considered a modified design for the centers
that focused on vocational training for adults with disabilities,
and adaptation training for students with disabilities about to integrate
into regular schools. The centers could also serve as repositories
for prosthetics, wheelchairs and crutches while offering some basic
repairs of special equipment. Funding would most likely dictate whether
Oriols vision for the centers could become a reality.
Later that day, two United States Agency for International Development
(USAID) representatives visited the office. For months, the United
States primary foreign aid agency worked with BSEIPH to finalize
a $900,000 award for construction costs to convert one school in each
of the countrys 10 departments into a fully accessible facility.
The proposal, which originated in Oriols office, aimed to create
these schools as models for inclusion. Renovation of the 10 schools
is scheduled to begin in 2013, once the Haitian Ministry of Education
and USAID selected the schools to receive the upgrades. The meeting
ended with the USAID reps and Oriol agreeing to meet again once the
agencys attorneys signed off on the agreement.
Oriols schedule as Secretary consumed most of his waking hours
and left him with little time for his wife, Rachelle, and young daughter,
Galia. Fortunately, Oriols parents and two of his five sisters
live nearby. Although Geralds father still worked as a civil
engineer and his mother as a pediatrician, Oriols parents spent
considerable time with their granddaughter. Oriol also employed a
small support staff at home that included a driver to take his daughter
to and from school, and a nanny to help with cooking, cleaning and
Oriol, who already represented his country at conferences in Qatar,
Ecuador and the United States, often returned home from work in darkness.
This evening we again arrived late, so Yovens carried Oriol into the
house to his bed, propped him up with pillows, turned on the news,
and plugged in his laptop. Oriol continued to work into the night,
responding to emails and talking quietly on the cellphone. Once his
four-year-old daughter fell asleep beside him, Rachelle carried the
young girl to her bedroom, and finally had a few minutes with her
Wednesday, October 24
The Secretarys SUV climbed the steep hills of Petionville. If
Port-au-Prince had a wealthy neighborhood, this was it.
Before heading to the office, we stopped at the school where Oriols
daughter attended kindergarten. The occasion was a parent teacher
conference. Either to accommodate Oriols disability or his busy
schedule as a member of the Presidents cabinet, the meeting
was held in the schools parking lot: the young Haitian teacher
brought a collection of crayon drawings and other papers to the passenger
window for Oriol to review.
Like any proud parent, Oriol commented on a few and asked some general
questions about his daughters progress in class. Once the impromptu
parent teacher conference ended, we immediately headed back down the
hill toward Nazon and our next meeting.
Later that afternoon, two representatives from a well known international
Christian development organization met with the Secretary in his office.
The first, a French urban planner, followed up on an idea proposed
by Oriol, to create a universal design course for a local technical
college. Some of the post earthquake construction already completed
did not fully consider universal design principles.
Oriol understood that the rebuilding of Port-au-Prince offered the
possibility of a great leap forward for Haitis disability movement,
but only if these new structures fully considered accessibility. The
Secretary wanted more data on what it would take to make the capitals
economic infrastructure available to people with disabilities, and
so the urban planner intended to incorporate accessibility audits
of local businesses in the design of his class. Oriol expected the
course to produce future generations of Haitian engineers, designers
and construction contractors, trained to create accessible structures
and spaces throughout the country.
The other representative from the NGO, a young Swiss-German woman
with a background in international law, pitched yet another awareness
program because the NGO had some funding it needed to use up by the
end of the 2012 calendar year. Oriol promised to consider her proposal
and respond by email in the next several days.
Earlier that week, I videotaped Oriol discussing his thoughts on the
10,000 NGOs working in Haiti. Sitting at my temporary desk in the
BSEIPH office, I reviewed the footage through my digital cameras
playback feature. The segment started with one of the Secretarys
famous habits: short bursts of forward and backward motion in his
electric wheelchair, much like a standing person pacing or rocking
back and forth to burn off nervous energy. Finally, Oriol settled
into the frame. The severe muscle degeneration associated with spinal
muscular atrophy caused his right shoulder to drop at a sharp angle,
while his legs remained motionless and contorted in the wheelchair.
The camera quickly zoomed in on his bearded face and wire-rimmed glasses.
The Secretary possessed a brilliant mind and when he talked, people
tended to listen. In response to my question, he said:
The presence of NGOs in Haiti is due to many reasons, including the
incapacity of the state to provide adequate access to social services.
Although as a people we are certainly grateful for the continuing
support received from NGOs, the government of Haiti must step up and
assume leadership. Nonprofit organizations should not intervene in
the country as though in a vacuum, void of any control, regulations
and coordination from public authorities. I strongly believe that
the Ministry of Planning, as well as other concerned ministries, should
monitor the interventions of NGOs in the country in order to ensure
the services being offered are of quality, are needed, are part of
the government agenda, and in the long run will gradually contribute
to the reinforcement of local autonomy.
In addition to long hours at the office, Oriol sometimes met with
people at home in the evening to maximize his working day. That night,
he connected with two representatives from a large, well known international
aid agency on the outdoor patio of his fathers home, located
in the same compound as his own. The agencys local point person
on disability brought the agencys expert on disability from
New York to tour the organizations field operations. Although
the expert informed Oriol that she was only in the country to advise
her own agency on the inclusion of disability within the design of
its programs, she couldnt resist offering Oriol a bit of advice:
follow a two-track approach to disability awareness programs coupled
with action programs.
Next, the disability expert asked about La Piste, a camp for persons
displaced by the quake, which the International Federation of Red
Cross set up near the Port-au-Prince airport a year after the temblor.
Of the 377 households sheltered at the camp, 350 had at least one
family member with a disability. According to the Red Cross, there
were approximately 160 residents at La Piste who were deaf, 60 with
a visual impairment, 45 with paralysis and 75 who experienced difficulty
walking due to a limb amputation, malformation or permanent injury.
The Red Cross established the camp with good intentions, but two years
later a great many residents remained there.
What is your agencys plan for these people? the
visitor asked Oriol candidly. He informed her that he visited the
camp and even sat down with the leaders of the community to hear their
demands. The residents wanted more services and the Secretary faced
a dilemma. While it was evident the community needed continual support,
as camps go, La Piste was not the worst. Oriol feared that if the
Haitian government and NGOs continued to incrementally improve the
camp, then the residents could become further institutionalized and
isolated and less likely to relocate, even when a permanent solution
was offeredthe worst possible outcome for someone attempting
to build an inclusive society.
Of course its the IOMs [International Organization
for Migration] responsibility to relocate these people, the
disability expert said. But Oriol reminded her that it was actually,
first and foremost, the Haitian governments responsibility.
The two women thanked Oriol for the meeting, and then left for a dinner
in Petionville with Nigel Fisher, the United Nations Humanitarian
As the two drove away in their SUV, the eastern edge of Hurricane
Sandy reached Port-au-Prince. Within a few days, the winds and rain
from the storm claimed 54 lives and decimated upwards of 70 percent
of the nations agricultural crops; a devastating blow to Haitis
fragile recovery from the quake.
Earlier, before the onslaught of bad weather, Oriol dismissed his
driver for the evening, and the two of us faced a 300-yard slog to
reach his house. Despite the gusting winds and pouring rain, Oriol
engaged his electric wheelchair and set off toward home. At that moment,
I couldnt help but think of several lines from Oxford economist,
Paul Collier, whose book The Bottom Billion identified the traps
that ensnared developing countries where the worlds poorest
one billion people lived. According to Collier, In every society
of the bottom billion, there are people working for change, but usually
they are defeated by the powerful internal forces stacked against
them. We should be helping the heroes. So far, our efforts have been
paltry: through inertia, ignorance and incompetence, we have stood
by and watched them lose.
As Oriol motored through the ominous storm, I wondered if I spent
the week watching him lose. Within sight of his home, Oriol suddenly
stopped. Whats wrong? I shouted, fearing the rain
caused a short in his chairs electrical system.
My hands become numb when they get wet, and it is difficult
to operate the controls, he replied. We remained motionless
in the storm until Gerald was ready to move forward again. Slowly
he went, but always forward.
by James English
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