Haiti – Disability Agenda

Haiti - Disability AgendaSince 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.


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.

FRIDAYHaiti - Disability Agenda

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.

Haiti - Disability AgendaAfter 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.

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On Monday morning, while waiting for USAID representatives to arrive at the office, Secretary Oriol and I talked about his agency’s program to support income-generating activities for persons with disabilities. In the last three months, BSEIPH awarded more than 200 “contracts” for the economic support of persons with disabilities. The funds from these small grants enabled recipients to sell drinks, enroll children for school, pay medical bills, etc. The contract component was Oriol’s idea and provided a mechanism for following up with participants. It also moved the program from a series of handouts to investments in individuals with disabilities.

At 11:00 am, we met with Chris Frey, a USAID engineer, Gyrlande Bois, USAID’s Disability Advisor, and representatives from two special schools: one serving deaf students and the other intellectually challenged students. The USAID project that upgraded the schools in Jacmel had some funding left, so Oriol and USAID were exploring the possibility of making some structural upgrades at these two schools in the capital. The school for deaf children, which was badly damaged during the earthquake, had reopened but needed to construct a dormitory for approximately 150 of the school’s 400 students who arrived from other areas of the country. The director of the school for the intellectually challenged was hoping USAID could complete construction on a new clinic that was started with support from the Catholic Church. Chris, the engineer, explained that USAID’s contractor would visit the sites in the near future to prepare a preliminary plan and budget for the proposed projects. Once the contractor performed his/her analysis, if the projects each fell under the threshold of $150,000, then a BPA could be issued, which would greatly streamline the process.

At midday, Eder Romeus stopped by the Secretary’s office. Eder is a 32-year-old artist with disabilities who lives in Jacmel, where he is the founder and an active member of Action Commune pour l’Encadrement des Handicapés, a disabled persons organizationHaiti - Disability Agenda helping its members discover their talents and achieve independent living. Eder lost the use of his legs after contracting childhood polio. He mainly paints landscapes and portraits on canvas, but sometimes used a crutch as a canvas. Eder’s works have appeared in galleries in Chicago and Miami, and now he is planning an exhibition in Jacmel for November 2014.

At 2 pm Yovens and I jumped in the Toyota pickup and headed to Pétionville to Place Boyer, a large public park that was recently renovated by the Unit for the Construction of Housing and Public Buildings with some additional financial support from Christian Blind Mission at the request of Oriol’s agency. The park now featured two accessible entrances and multiple ramps so all areas of the park, including the stage, were available to persons with disabilities. Converting Place Boyer into a fully accessible park achieved the Secretary’s dual objective of opening society to persons with disabilities while also sensitizing the general population by exposing them to a larger number of persons with disabilities at public events. Digicel hosted a World Cup event the day of our visit. Fans in the park watched soccer matches on a giant screen that had been wheeled up earlier on the newly constructed wheelchair ramp, a great example of how accessibility features benefit all members of society not just persons with disabilities.

At the end of the day, Monica Gonzalez-Bunster and Stefanie Haigh from the Walkabout Foundation stopped by the office. Monica’s two children, Carolina and Luis, who was paralyzed from the chest down, started the organization to promote awareness of paralysis and increased mobility for persons with disabilities. They launched their foundation in 2009 with an 870-kilometer trek on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route, an accomplishment that made Luis, according to Walkabout’s website “the first person in the history of Spain to cross the entire country using only the strength of his two arms.” After the 2010 earthquake, Walkabout pledged 10,000 wheelchairs for Haiti and now they were working hard to deliver on that pledge. Walkabout had already sent about 1,500 wheelchairs, a combination of Rough Riders for adults living in Haiti’s challenging terrain and smaller wheelchairs for children with disabilities; however, their shipments were taking a long time to get released from customs in Port-au-Prince. Oriol and his staff were attempting to assist with the delays so the wheelchairs could be delivered to locations throughout the country, including the new teaching hospital in Mirebalais, Haiti Hospital Appeal in Cap-Haïtien and St. Boniface in Fond des Blancs.


In the morning, Yovens drove me to the Organization of American States (OAS) office in Pétionville for a meeting with Kate McAuliff of Gallaudet University and ten representatives from the Haitian deaf community. Gallaudet, the most prestigious university for deaf and hard of hearing students in the United States, was contributing its expertise to the Haitian Sign Language Documentation Project, an effort McAuliff started the previous summer and which was now being supported financially by the OAS at the request of Oriol’s agency.

The exact size of the deaf population in Haiti is unknown. According to the World Health Organization’s Fact Sheet on Deafness and Hearing Loss (last updated February 2014), “Over 5% of the world’s population—360 million people—has disabling hearing loss … [and] the majority of these people live in low- and middle-income countries.”

Due to the lack of learning materials in Haitian Sign Language and in some cases, even the knowledge of the existence of this sign language, American Sign Language was introduced in Haiti many years ago, which had the unfortunate consequence of infusing ASL into the local signing. This project aimed to create a lexical database of Haitian signs, which would serve as a foundation for future learning materials for deaf students in Haiti and Oriol hoped, the eventual codification of a Haitian sign language.

In addition to filming some public service announcements about cholera, malaria and chikungunya, the group, whose members came from all over the country, regularly filmed each other signing to identify mutually agreed upon signs. A team back at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. led by Dr. Julie Hochgesang, a linguist, analyzed and tagged the data looking for patterns in the structure of the language. The documentation project was on target to be completed by the end of September 2014, and the group members intended to propose new projects to further establish and protect Haitian Sign Language.

In the afternoon I met with Carine Roenen, Director of Fonkoze Foundation, the non-profit arm of Fonkoze Financial Services, which was Haiti’s largest microfinance organization. Dr. Dawn Elliott from the Economics Department of Texas Christian University was collaborating with Secretary Oriol’s agency and Fonkoze on a pilot Emergency Savings Program for persons with disabilities in the Central Plateau. We needed one more partner for the project and Carine and I discussed submitting a proposal to Digicel Foundation. Oriol’s agency was already working with Digicel on its disabled vendors program, which trained persons with disabilities as sellers of cell phone minutes. Digicel and Fonkoze had also collaborated in the past, so it seemed like a good match for all parties.

Haiti - Disability AgendaAfter a great meeting at Fonkoze, Yovens and I stopped at the nearby Hotel Oloffson, made famous by Graham Greene’s novel, The Comedians. We enjoyed a coca cola while watching the first half of the US-Belgium match. We returned to Oriol’s house just in time to see the US lose 2-1 in extra time.


At 8:30 am Othniel Etienne, Oriol’s Communication’s Advisor arrived at the house. Othniel, Jackie, our driver for the day and I headed to the Central Plateau to meet Emile Mesidor, a Regional Supervisor for Fonkoze’s CLM program, which was a “staircase out of ultra-poverty.”

On the drive out to the Central Plateau, Othniel explained his latest project, which was the development of an iPhone application to convert SMS text messages to voice for blind and illiterate persons. In less than an hour, we reached the rendezvous point in Foncheval, a small community at the top of the mountain range separating Port-au-Prince from the Central Plateau. Emile introduced us to Marie Denise, a mother of four, living in extreme poverty beside Route Nationale No. 3. She was approximately five months into the CLM program, which had provided her with some livestock, a latrine, a water filter, a repaired roof, a health insurance card and 300 gourdes per week for the first six weeks of the program. Her situation certainly seemed stabilized and moving in a positive direction.

Next we stopped at a community near Mont Blanc to see a training session for a group of CLM participants who had completed twelve months in the program. Here we met Nicole, single mother of two, who now had a small but respectable home of her own in the community as a result of the program. We also visited the house in Mirebalais where CLM case managers lived and worked. Emile showed us a map of the region and explained how the team was working its way through the Central Plateau, starting in Saut-d’Eau and moving to Mirebalais and then to Lascahobas and Thomassique, searching for persons in ultra-poverty.

Before returning to the capital, we drove by the new teaching hospital in Mirebalais. I had toured the construction site in 2011 with John Chew, the Project Coordinator for Partners In Health. The hospital was nearing completion at that time, and it was great to see the modern medical facility now serving so many people in the Central Plateau.

That afternoon the Secretary and I rendezvoused at his home to share an early dinner and discuss the day. He told me about his various “Wednesday” appointments. Oriol set aside time each Wednesday to meet with five to ten citizens with disabilities who had requested some service or support from his office. Normally, the Secretary worked on a macro level, so he used these meetings as a way to stay connected with the people his agency served.

After dinner, Oriol headed back to Port-au-Prince for a Cabinet meeting with the Prime Minister. These meetings occurred every other Wednesday and included a closed-door session among the Cabinet members followed immediately by a public meeting attended mainly by the media. These dual meetings represented an unprecedented level of communication between the various government ministries and agencies and with the public, but they were also famous for their duration and tonight was no exception. According to Oriol, the private meeting this evening ran from around 5 pm to 9 pm and the public meeting lasted until 2 am.


After taking Oriol to the office in Nazon, Yovens and I headed to Zanmi Beni, which means “blessed friend” in Creole. The orphanage was home to 60 children, many with disabilities. Partners In Health opened the facility in 2010 following the earthquake, when 42 abandoned children with disabilities were relocated from the state hospital to the serene property north of the city.

Operation Blessing International established a tilapia fish farm on the property and shared the profits with Zanmi Beni, which also had a small bakery, a chicken farm and a community restaurant under construction in an effort to make the orphanage more sustainable. With 125 staff, the facility operated under a monthly budget of approximately $60,000. Handicap International was promoting the facility as the standard for orphanages in Haiti and was putting together a list of recommendations for the Haitian government based on the Zanmi Beni model.

That evening we attended a 4th of July celebration at U.S. Ambassador Pamela White’s residence in Pétionville. Many of Oriol’s government colleagues, including the Prime Minister, attended the event that featured delicious food, American music and even some fireworks. The Ambassador graciously greeted Secretary Oriol upon his arrival and visited with him again, following her speech at the end of the evening.


Jean Vandal, an eminent Haitian lawyer and former Minister of Justice stopped by the office at midday to work with the Secretary on the reinforcement of the legal framework on disability. I slipped out of the office with Yovens to visit the new Healing Hands for Haiti facility in Port-au-Prince. Evelyne Bernard, Director of Administration and Human Resources, and Alise Baptiste Volel, the Lead Physical Therapist, gave me a tour of the rehabilitation center. The organization’s previous facility was destroyed during the earthquake and the International Red Cross funded this beautiful new building, which opened in May 2012 and featured a prosthesis lab that worked with approximately 15 patients per day, a physical therapy center that was now treating 20-30 patients per day, and classrooms to teach both physical therapy and prosthetics. Pascal Kodjo, an experienced technician from Togo, West Africa, operated the prosthesis lab, which created affordable and customized artificial limbs. Recipients paid the materials fee or no fee at all and stayed onsite in a dormitory for several days while the prosthetic was fabricated, fitted and adjusted.

Following the tour, Yovens drove me back to the office to say my goodbyes to Oriol and his team, and then on to the airport. At the gate, I sipped a cup of Haitian coffee and reflected on the last three years. In 2011, when Secretary Oriol assumed office, rubble lined the streets and IDP camps filled nearly every public space in the capital. We had no budget. A team needed to be built. The challenges seemed almost insurmountable. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy battered us on my final day in Port-au- Prince. I left the country in the midst of another natural disaster and the political situation remained fragile. In 2013, we traveled to Washington, DC at the invitation of Senator Tom Harkin and the OAS, where the Secretary presented to member states, and we vastly increased our network of contacts. Later that year, Oriol was honored by Texas Christian University as a Global Innovator and spent a week on our campus. In 2014, the progress was undeniable. The Secretary now had a solid team that was more than halfway through the administration’s 5-year term, and they were hitting their stride. Although Haiti still faced numerous developmental challenges, the country was clearly moving forward, and the disability agenda was a part of that movement.

As I boarded the flight to Miami, I received one final text message from Oriol. “It was great to have you with us in Haiti. I hope you enjoyed your time and I look forward to having you next year, again. It’s almost an obligation, not only do you work for the Haitian government but also you have family here now: Take care, safe flight.”

It was only fitting that Brazil played its quarterfinal World Cup match on my last afternoon in Haiti. Moments before the flight taxied away from the gate, the Captain announced the outcome of the game. The Brazilians held on for a 1-0 win over the Colombians. I closed my eyes and pictured the yellow and green shirts pouring into the streets of Port-au-Prince. It was a good day in Haiti. 

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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.






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