Since October 2011 James English has served as an advisor to Gérald Oriol, Jr., Haiti’s Secretary of State for the Integration of Persons with Disabilities. ABILITY Magazine has followed Oriol’s five-year tenure in office with feature stories in 2012 and 2014. This article is the third in the series and coincides with Oriol’s final year in office as Haiti’s highest ranking government official working on behalf of an estimated one million persons with disabilities. Oriol, who has spinal muscular atrophy, is believed to be the most severely disabled high-ranking government official in the world today.
Friday – April 1, 2016
On the 6:25 a.m. flight from Miami to Port-au-Prince, I reread the text messages I received the previous night from Secretary Oriol about Vanessa Previl, Monique Vincent and Jesula Gelin, three women from Lévèque who were deaf and recently murdered near the Haitian community of Cabaret. The three apparently had traveled to Port-au-Prince to purchase supplies for their small businesses and were unable to return home early in the day due to a traffic jam caused by the collapse of a bridge. The women left their minibus and set out on foot with the hope of finding a place to sleep for the night. Sadly, they encountered a gang of criminals who are accused of torturing and eventually killing all three women. The story took an unusual twist when one of the suspects said some gang members of the community believed the women, who could not speak and communicated using sign language, were lougarou, a Creole term for werewolves. While persons with disabilities may have had to cope with stigmatizations due to superstitions within Haitian culture, Oriol urged restraint in order to avoid making premature conclusions, as it was possible the lougarou story was not the culprits’ beliefs, but rather an attempt by the accused to divert attention and blame away from themselves by evoking negative stereotypes of persons with disabilities.
As media speculation about the murders increased, Oriol sought to reinforce collaboration between the community—especially friends, neighbors and family members of the victims—and the authorities involved in the investigation, not only to ensure justice prevails but also to have a thorough understanding of the context in which the crime occurred. According to Oriol, “If the crime is not carefully documented, this will be a two-headed tragedy: the judicial system will fail to give justice to these three women, and Haitian society will lose an opportunity, even if tragic, to get a better understanding of the dynamics between culture and disability in the country and how to address these subjects collectively for the betterment of Haiti.”
In response to the brutal murders, the disabled community organized a demonstration scheduled for the morning of my arrival. The group planned to convene at St. Vincent’s School for Children with Disabilities in Port-au-Prince and from there, they would march to the Ministry of Justice to honor the victims and demand culpability for the perpetrators of these horrible crimes. Secretary Oriol joined the march to show solidarity with the victims’ families and friends and to bring greater awareness to the rights of persons with disabilities in Haiti.
I asked the Secretary if I could join him at the demonstration. “Yes, you can. Wear a white shirt if possible,” he texted back.
After quickly passing through the Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport, Oriol’s driver, Jackie, met us at the curb and drove us into the capital. We arrived at St. Vincent’s just as Secretary Oriol and approximately 300 other persons with and without disabilities began their march.
In October 2011, President Michel Martelly appointed Oriol as Secretary of State with the disability portfolio. Martelly completed his five-year term in February 2016. A disputed first round of the Presidential election resulted in a delayed second round, which necessitated the selection of an Interim President, Jocelerme Privert, to take office when Martelly stepped down. The Parliament subsequently approved Privert’s second nomination for Interim Prime Minister, Enex Jean-Charles, as well as 15 members of his Ministerial Cabinet. The various secretaries of state who were appointed by former President Michel Martelly, including Oriol, were likely to be changed soon.
“Welcome back to Haiti,” Secretary Oriol said as he passed by me in his wheelchair. At least for another day, Oriol remained the country’s highest-ranking government official working on behalf of the nation’s persons with disabilities. Despite the ongoing political uncertainty and the possibility that his tenure in office would end soon, Oriol was determined to spend every day in office advancing the disability agenda in Haiti.
During the march, I had the good fortune of finally meeting one of my heroes: Joseph Jean Paul, aka “JoJo,” a well-known Haitian artist with disabilities. JoJo paints beautifully despite having no arms or legs. He is also on the staff at St. Vincent’s School for Handicapped Children and invited us to visit him later in the day.
At the conclusion of the march, Oriol and I headed straight to a meeting at Digicel headquarters in Port-au-Prince. Digicel Foundation, the non-profit arm of Haiti’s largest telecommunications company, provided funding support to Oriol’s agency for several initiatives related to disabilities, including a pilot financial empowerment program for 30 persons with disabilities in the Central Plateau. The pilot, which was a collaboration between the secretary’s agency Bureau du Secrétaire d’Etat à l’Intégration des Personnes Handicapées (BSEIPH), Association des Handicapés pour l’Avancement de l’Arrondissement de Lascahobas (ASHALAS), Fonkoze Foundation, Texas Christian University (TCU) and the Digicel Foundation, had reached the end of its original 12-month duration. At the meeting, the Fonkoze Foundation announced they planned to continue working with the pilot participants for another six months. Even more impressive was the foundation’s decision to mainstream disability throughout its Chemen Lavi Miyò (CLM) program, which is an 18-month graduation program that offers a pathway out of ultra-poverty for Haitian women and now, Haitians with disabilities. In addition to these significant outcomes, the partners discussed the possibility of creating a second, larger pilot program that would serve approximately 100 people with disabilities. The expanded pilot program would provide participants with two income-generating activities, as well as access to healthcare, home accessibility upgrades, financial literacy training and regular visits from a case manager, at a cost of approximately $200,000. The partners agreed to begin searching for potential funding sources for the expanded program.
After the meeting at Digicel, Secretary Oriol and I devoted Friday afternoon to a special project. During Oriol’s tenure in office, we frequently talked about creating a children’s book on disability in Haiti. Now, as he approached the end of his appointment, our dream had become a reality. Panther City Press, the non-profit arm of TCU Press, had just released the Creole version of Galia’s Dad is in a Wheelchair, a children’s book about Oriol’s relationship with his daughter and disability in Haiti. I authored the book, which has beautiful illustrations by Teddy Keser Mombrun, a political cartoonist for Haiti’s largest newspaper, Le Nouvelliste. Oriol provided the Creole translation of the book with some assistance from our good friend, Dr. Michel DeGraff, a Haitian professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Now, we had the privilege of distributing hundreds of free copies of the book to schools and libraries throughout the country.
Following book deliveries to FOKAL, a cultural organization with 19 libraries in Haiti, and to the Akademi Kreyòl Ayisyen, an organization promoting the use of Creole throughout Haitian society, we ended our workday back at St. Vincent’s. We distributed dozens of copies of the book to students with disabilities and visited with JoJo, who showed us a selection of his most recent paintings.
At dinner that evening, Secretary Oriol and I reminisced about some of the more memorable moments from his nearly five years in office. We also discussed some unfinished business: two important pieces of legislation that were making their way through the Haitian government. The first was a bill that would establish a National Solidarity Fund for the Integration of Persons with Disabilities. The bill, which had already passed the lower house and was now awaiting senate approval, would use government revenues, budget allocations and donations to help persons with disabilities undertake income-generating activities, attend school and procure adaptive materials. The other pending legislation was a draft bill on accessibility norms for the built environment in Haiti, and it was currently sitting in the Prime Minister’s office, awaiting executive approval.
Although Haiti still lacked the enforcement capacity to ensure new laws such as these would be fully upheld, Oriol and his colleagues were looking over the horizon in their attempts to create a legislative framework that would ultimately serve as a foundation for the rights of persons with disabilities in Haiti.
Saturday – April 2, 2016
On Saturday morning, we drove into the mountains northeast of the capital to Lascahobas, a small town in the eastern reaches of Haiti’s Central Plateau, where 27 persons with disabilities from the financial empowerment pilot program were waiting to receive completion certificates in the presence of their families, the pilot sponsors and Secretary Oriol. Two of the pilot participants did not complete the program for a good reason: they’d found permanent employment. One pilot participant was unable to finish due to health reasons.
According to Oriol, the financial empowerment program designed by the Fonkoze Foundation’s CLM team and Dr. Dawn Elliott, a professor of economics from TCU, “is significant for two reasons. First, in a country like Haiti, which is prone to natural disasters and political crisis, it is imperative the most vulnerable populations have some means to survive difficult times. But also, financial independence creates within Haitian society a new perception of persons with disabilities as important contributors to the development of families, communities and our country.”
Following the three-hour ceremony, our group stopped at the historic Haitian Vodou waterfall, Saut d’Eau. In his position as secretary of state, Oriol has always promoted tolerance and understanding. Although he is not a practitioner of Vodou, he certainly respects the role it plays in Haitian society.
The waterfall at Saut d’Eau is not exactly handicap accessible. The secretary had to be lifted in his wheelchair above the turnstiles and then carried approximately 300 yards down a series of staircases to the water. Two Haitian men held me by the arms and led me over slippery rocks to the base of the waterfall for some memorable iPhone photos.
At the end of the day, as the sun was beginning to set over the Central Plateau, we visited l’Ecole Mixte Nouvelle Jérusalem pour les Sourds, a small school near Mirebalais for children who are deaf. The secretary’s agency recently provided a small grant to the school to help build its dormitory, which is home to 45 children with hearing impairments. We distributed copies of the children’s book and visited with the principal and teachers at the school.
At dinner that evening, we talked about what Secretary Oriol might do after leaving office. Amazingly, Oriol had not taken a single vacation during his five years in office. In addition to spending more time with his family and traveling, Oriol planned to pursue his social work through Fondation J’Aime Haïti, the Haitian non-profit he co-founded to champion the rights of persons with disabilities and disadvantaged youths in Haiti.
Before saying our goodbyes, I asked the secretary for a formal statement on his tenure in office.
According to Oriol, “It has been an honor to serve my country at the highest levels within the public sector. Since my appointment in October 2011, I have worked non-stop to improve the living conditions of persons with disabilities. Although much remains to be done, we have been able to help move the disability agenda forward in Haiti. Today, BSEIPH is present in seven out of 10 departments in the country, a new law has been voted by the parliament and promulgated by former President Martelly and efforts are underway to mainstream disability across the public agenda with the creation of an inter-ministerial committee on disability. I am confident that if efforts are maintained in the long-term, persons with disabilities will be able to fully exercise their rights as citizens and achieve their full potential, and, in the process help Haiti shine greater.”
James English works at Texas Christian University.