Since October of 2011, James English has served as an advisor to Gerald Oriol, Jr., Haiti’s Secretary of State for the Integration of Persons with Disabilities. In October 2012, English traveled to Haiti for the one-year anniversary of Oriol’s appointment. He documented that visit for ABILITY Magazine, which ran the piece in conjunction with the third anniversary of the earthquake that killed more than 200,000 and left approximately 1.5 million homeless. English returned to Haiti in 2014 to spend nine days with the Secretary and provided this update on Oriol and the disability agenda in Haiti.
WEEK ONE: WEDNESDAY
I landed in Port-au-Prince at 4:40 pm and after exiting the newly renovated Toussaint Louverture International Airport, I immediately spotted Yovens. The tall, silent young man nodded, then motioned for me to follow him to a nearby blue Toyota pickup truck. In the front passenger seat was my host, Gerald Oriol, Jr., Haiti’s Secretary of State for the Integration of Persons with Disabilities. Oriol, who has spinal muscular atrophy, a form of muscular dystrophy, was believed to be the most severely disabled individual holding a high-level government post in the world, today. The Secretary carefully extended his right hand and welcomed me back to Haiti.
We dropped my luggage off at Oriol’s house and headed toward Sainte Marie, a community located on a steep hillside in southern Port-au-Prince. The Secretary was invited to attend the inauguration of a refurbished soccer field that was the site of an internally displaced people (IDP) camp after the earthquake. On the drive, Oriol directed my attention to some new solar street lights in the capital, but even more noticeable were all of the yellow and green shirts and Brazilian flags throughout the city. The World Cup was in full swing when I arrived, and I quickly learned that Haitians love Brazilian football. The last time a Haitian team qualified for the World Cup was 1974, and since then, the country’s die-hard soccer fans had adopted the Brazilian team as their de facto squad during international competitions.
When we arrived in Sainte Marie, the stadium was packed, music was blaring, and the crowd was going wild as two local teams played an exhibition match. It was a good night for the community and a stark contrast to my 2011 visit to Sainte Marie when so many were still living in tents and under tarps. Later that evening, as we were leaving the event, Oriol informed me the area behind the soccer field was the site of a mass grave, where the community buried many of those who had died in the earthquake.
We started the morning in Pétionville at the newly renovated El Rancho hotel, located directly behind the newly constructed Oasis hotel. The occasion was the start of a 3-day leadership workshop presented by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Deborah Ancona, a professor from the Sloan School of Management, and her MIT colleague Michel DeGraff travelled to Port-au-Prince at the request of Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe to conduct training for the entire Haitian Ministerial Cabinet.
As part of its collaboration with the Haitian government, MIT was also producing Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) educational materials in Creole. According to DeGraff, a Haitian professor of linguistics, 95% of the country speaks Creole and less than 5% are fluent in French. Yet, French is the official language most often used in the curriculum and classroom. DeGraff and his colleagues were convinced this language barrier was preventing the country from reaching its full potential.
At the end of the first day of training, we all watched a recording of Barack Obama’s 2004 “Audacity of Hope” speech as an example of an effective leader using “the story of me, the story of us and the story of now” to create a shared vision. It was especially poignant to watch this historic speech in the company of these government officials who had the audacity to move their country forward following the most devastating natural disaster of the last century, an effort that was further complicated by a cholera outbreak, Hurricane Sandy and a long list of developmental challenges.
That evening at Oriol’s house, we glanced at pre-recorded World Cup footage of the US-Germany match while discussing a proposal his agency and the World Bank were submitting to the Japanese Trust Fund for the creation of a National Registry and a Job Placement Service for persons with disabilities. If funded, the project would represent the Haitian government’s first formal attempt at identifying and documenting the estimated one million persons with disabilities located throughout the country. Haiti’s new law on disability also required Oriol’s agency to develop a job placement service for persons with disabilities and, if secured, the grant would allow him to satisfy that requirement.
The World Bank was almost ready to submit the proposal, but there was one last issue to be resolved. The language in the draft implied the job placement service would only provide employment in the formal sector; however, according to an estimate from the UN Special Representative to Haiti, “the formal sector generates no more than ten percent of employment” in the country. For this reason, we asked the World Bank to add some language about “income-generating activities” as another option for Persons with Disabilities if formal employment was not available. The World Bank representatives agreed with the change and asked us to provide indicators for both the job placement service and income-generating activities. We worked through the rerun of the US team’s 1-0 loss to Germany and finally called it a night around 10 pm.
Our start time for Day 2 of the MIT leadership training was pushed to noon so the Prime Minister and Ministerial Cabinet could sign the budget for the upcoming fiscal year. The later start time allowed us to stop at Oriol’s office in Nazon, known locally as BSEIPH (Bureau du Secrétaire d’ Etat à l’Intégration des Personnes Handicapées), to catch up on some e-mail messages.
Guerline Dardignac, Oriol’s Chief of Staff, traveled to Jacmel earlier in the morning for the inauguration of Ecole Nationale Edèze Gousse and Lycée Célie Lamour, two existing public schools that were converted into fully accessible facilities through a USAID grant. These were the first of six public schools scheduled to receive upgrades, and Oriol hoped these schools would become “models of inclusion” for other communities in Haiti to emulate. Since Oriol and I could not attend the ceremony, we planned to visit the schools privately on Sunday.
Day 2 of MIT training ended around 6 pm. Coincidentally, Oriol’s daughter, Galia had a ballet recital at the El Rancho that evening at 7 pm so we remained at the hotel and chatted with the Prime Minister and other colleagues until show time. That evening we enjoyed Flames of Paris, a production from Madam Lynn Williams Rouzier that followed two couples during the French Revolution. Oriol’s daughter had only been dancing a short time so she was relegated to a minor supporting role. Still, like any proud parent, he was thrilled when she finally danced across the stage.
Saturday morning we arrived slightly late at the third and final day of MIT leadership training due to heavy traffic in the capital. Each Minister and Secretary was asked to construct a vision for his or her agency. Oriol dictated his vision to me, which was “to create an environment in which all Haitians, including persons with disabilities, can live with dignity and participate effectively in the development of the country.”
Before leaving El Rancho, Oriol and I had lunch with Jessy Ménos, Secretary of State for Tourism and Creative Industries and Édouard Valmé, Chief of Staff to the Minister for Haitians Living Abroad. According to Ménos, the Haitian government was about to implement a $10 tourism fee any visitor with a foreign passport would pay upon entering the country. This was a common practice throughout the Caribbean and helped improve and sustain tourism in those countries. The $10 fee would be used to fund the new tourism police, the rehabilitation of historic sites, the training of hospitality workers and the promotion of tourism in Haiti.
Ménos also explained the new craft village project her ministry was supporting in the northern town of Milot. In 2013, more than 600,000 cruise ship passengers visited Labadee, a private resort on the country’s northern coast Royal Caribbean leased from the Haitian government. Visitors to Labadee rarely travelled beyond the port; however, the government recognized the potential impact these tourists could have on the economy if they could easily visit famous sites such as Sans-Souci Palace and the Citadelle Laferrière. Construction was underway on a good road from Labadee to Milot, which would facilitate access to Haiti’s most famous UNESCO sites and a new craft village in Milot promoting Haitian culture and artistry. The Ministry intended to build other craft villages near major tourist attractions throughout the country.
After lunch, we briefly joined a crowd gathered around a television watching the Brazil-Chile match, which ended in a 1-1 tie after the regular 90 minutes of play. Rather than stay and watch the extra time, we took a driving tour of the capital. The area around the national palace was severely damaged during the earthquake. As part of its efforts to rebuild the administrative heart of the country, the government was purchasing and clearing these properties as sites for new public buildings. Construction was underway on some of the buildings already, including the Ministry of Commerce and the Supreme Court. Before arriving home, the outcome of the Brazil-Chile match was revealed to us when dozens of people in yellow and green shirts, cheering wildly, poured out of buildings and into the streets of Port-au-Prince. Brazil had advanced to the Quarterfinals of the World Cup.
On Sunday morning five of us packed into Oriol’s government- issued blue Toyota HiLux pickup truck and made the two-hour drive from Port-au-Prince to the southern coastal city of Jacmel. Our group included the Secretary, Yovens, Edrice, who hosted a weekly radio show on disability, Péguito, the Secretary’s personal security detail from the National Police and myself. Yovens skillfully navigated the heavy traffic on Route Nationale No. 2 west from the capital to Léogâne, the epicenter of the 2010 earthquake, before we turned south on the newly dubbed “Friendship Way,” which zig-zagged up and over steep and spectacular mountains to Jacmel.
After touring the two accessible schools with Oriol’s Regional Coordinator, we stopped at the new BSEIPH office under construction in Jacmel. The small bureau represented the Secretary’s sixth branch location and would soon be staffed with five personnel to serve the local disabled population. There was also a strategic reason for opening the new office: the Haitian government planned to invest heavily in Jacmel, which featured colonial architecture, beautiful beaches and a vibrant artist community. Secretary Oriol wanted to ensure the development of the city considered accessibility standards and persons with disabilities were a visible and vibrant part of the community.
When we arrived at the new location, the Secretary was unable to pass into the long narrow building due to a strip of concrete serving as a door stop. Nadiny, the gentleman hired to run the office made his first great decision: he called for a workman to come over and smash the concrete out of the way with a sledgehammer so the Secretary’s wheelchair could pass through. Instant accessibility! We loved it. Inside, a crew was converting an abandoned church into a modern office. At the rear of the facility, a new addition was being created to store wheelchairs and other adaptive materials.
After leaving the office, we stopped at Jacmel’s beautiful new Visitors Center, and following a short driving tour of the city’s historic district, we parked and walked along the renovated strand. Although Jacmel remained a work-in-progress, it was easy to see its great potential.
English works at Texas Christian University. He serves as a pro bono advisor to Haiti’s Secretary of State for the Integration of Persons with Disabilities.