Gerald Oriol, Jr. served as Haiti’s Secretary of State for the Integration of Persons with Disabilities from October 2011 to April 2016. During this five-year period, he was profiled three-times in ABILITY Magazine. This article is an update on Oriol’s first fifteen months back in office as the Haitian government’s top representative 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.
On October 4, 2016, Hurricane Matthew struck the southern peninsula of Haiti with winds up to 145 miles per hour, killing 546 persons, destroying thousands of structures, and placing more than 450,000 children out of school. According to a Washington Post article, the Category 4 storm “smashed fishing villages and shredded mountain hamlets with the force of a bomb blast, obliterating crops, killing livestock and leaving fruit trees as bare as matchsticks.” More than 175,000 people ended up in shelters following the storm, while others slept in caves and under trees, waiting for humanitarian assistance that was often delayed for days or weeks due to impassable roads and a lack of coordination of the relief effort. At the time of the disaster, an interim government was leading the country, which was ill-prepared to respond to the largest humanitarian crisis in Haiti since the 2010 earthquake. All told, Matthew impacted an estimated two million Haitians, including many persons with disabilities who were more vulnerable than other members of the population. Gerald Oriol, Jr., Haiti’s previous Secretary of State with the disability portfolio was six months out of office at the time of the hurricane, serving as a Special Advisor to HaitiChildren, a US-based non-profit. Oriol advised HaitiChildren on best practices and regularly visited the organization’s project sites in Tabarre, Cité Soleil, and Williamson, a large compound which included a school and orphanage for abandoned children with and without disabilities. When the hurricane struck, the non-profit agreed to extend beyond its regular activities. Oriol suggested the NGO focus on long-term recapitalization instead of short-term relief efforts like so many other international actors.
Oriol’s former Chief of Staff, Guerline Dardignac, was designated as Executive Director of the Bureau of the Secretary of State for the Integration of Persons with Disabilities (BSEIPH) and tasked with leading the agency during the interim period. BSEIPH, under Dardignac’s leadership, strived to work closely with the agency’s personnel in Jeremie and Les Cayes, as well as the disability community in the impacted areas, to ensure persons with disabilities weren’t left behind in relief efforts. Subsidies and grants were directed to many of the victims through special initiatives, including one with Christian Blind Mission, which aimed to help persons with disabilities and specialized institutions in the affected region recapitalize.
After learning of the dire housing situation in the South, Oriol suggested HaitiChildren collaborate with BSEIPH and the US-based NGO Food for the Poor on a post-hurricane assessment of the lodging conditions of many victims with disabilities, to identify potential recipients for new housing to be constructed by Food for the Poor. With Oriol’s assistance, BSEIPH identified beneficiaries, while the non-profit managed the funds and oversaw construction of fifty-three, small but accessible, houses for persons with disabilities in areas ravaged by the storm. In April of 2017, Haiti’s newly-elected President, Jovenel Moise and his Prime Minister, Jack Guy Lafontant appointed Oriol to serve again, as Haiti’s Secretary of State with the disability portfolio. With President’s Moise’s party holding a majority of the seats in parliament, Oriol reentered public office with a more favorable legislative environment; however, international funding for Haiti was nowhere near the same level as when Oriol first took office in 2011, the year after the earthquake. Although the agency’s budget increased steadily during Oriol’s first five years as Secretary, it still remained insufficient considering the needs. Despite the best efforts of Dardignac and the BSEIPH team, disability during the one-year interim period was relegated to “other items” in the public agenda and as a result, scores of important dossiers, projects, and new initiatives suffered or stalled. During his first appointment as Secretary, Oriol managed to grow the agency by adding personnel with greater technical expertise in the field of disability and increasing the number of BSEIPH offices from five to seven. Preparations are now underway to open an eighth office within a government complex in Port-de-Paix, the largest town in the northwestern corner of Haiti. That office is scheduled to open during the 2018-2019 fiscal year and will have six staff members, including a local coordinator and a social worker to serve persons with disabilities in the North-West Department of Haiti. The team will collaborate closely with local Disabled Persons Organizations (DPOs), other civil society groups, and the private sector to ensure greater participation and inclusion of persons with disabilities in the North-West.
One high priority for Secretary Oriol at the start of his second term was to build on BSEIPH’s collaborations with NGOs working in the field of disability. Two of his largest partners, Christian Blind Mission (CBM) and Handicap International (now Humanity and Inclusion), remain committed to advancing disability rights in Haiti. In 2017, BSEIPH and CBM opened three Centers for Inclusion to provide spaces for DPOs in Port-au-Prince, Gonaives, and Hinche to hold meetings, use technology, and attend workshops on subjects such as advocacy, leadership, and project management. CBM is partnering on several other initiatives such as, reinforcing the technical and institutional capacity of BSEIPH, creating a chair of universal accessibility at the Haitian State University, standardizing Haitian Sign Language (HSL), renovating a historic church in Port-au-Prince to make it more accessible to persons with disabilities, and conducting a preliminary inventory of national laws that need to better address the rights of persons with disabilities with the aim of eventually working on amendments to those laws. BSEIPH and HI are working together on a new project to provide greater employment opportunities for persons with disabilities, particularly in the West and North departments of Haiti. Oriol and his team are attempting to reinforce the job placement service within the agency, while increasing dialogue with the private sector and providing additional job training for persons with disabilities. Furthermore, HI is supporting efforts to open the new office in the North-West by furnishing it with equipment and materials such as, desks, office chairs, computers, an inverter, and batteries. In December of 2017, Oriol traveled to Fort Worth, Texas to receive an honorary Doctor of Public Service from Texas Christian University (TCU). The young Haitian leader was joined on the dais by James English, his US-based advisor since 2011. English wheeled Oriol to the podium to receive his honorary doctorate from the Chancellor and Provost of TCU. Oriol received a standing ovation from the crowd in the Horned Frogs’ basketball arena for his role as the university’s first Global Innovator and his collaboration with TCU professor of economics Dawn Elliott and Fonkoze Foundation on a pilot financial empowerment program for persons with disabilities in the Central Plateau of Haiti. Oriol was also the subject (and Creole translator) of a children’s book on disability that TCU Press released in 2016 for free distribution to schools and libraries in Haiti.
On the legislative front, the bill Oriol and his team drafted on the norms for the accessibility of the built environment was voted, with amendments, in the lower house on March 27, 2018 and then voted in the Senate on July 3, 2018. It is now awaiting publication in the official journal, Le Moniteur, to become the law of the land. The bill establishing the status, organization, and operation of the National Solidarity Fund for the Integration of Persons with Disabilities was adopted by the ministerial cabinet on February 28, 2018, then was voted in the lower house, with amendments, on July 24, 2018, and now awaits a Senate vote. As Oriol told the Haitian media, “I welcome the vote of the deputies […] When it has been voted in the Senate and published in the Official Journal, this law will mark a remarkable step towards the establishment of a more just and inclusive Haiti.” One unexpected challenge facing Oriol during his return to public office is Haiti’s evolving relationship with the United States, specifically the administration of Donald Trump. During the 2016 Presidential election, then Republican nominee, Donald Trump traveled to Miami and told Haitian-Americans, “I really want to be your biggest champion.” Since taking office, the US government decided to end, in July of 2019, Temporary Protected Status for nearly 60,000 Haitians living in the United States. On January 18, 2018, the US government declared Haitians no longer eligible for the H-2A and H-2B Temporary Work Visa program, and around that same time, President Trump reportedly referred to Haiti as a “shithole” country during a US government immigration meeting.
Despite these negative developments, Oriol prefers to focus on the positive. Haiti’s leading representative on disability has a different message for the global community:
“Haiti is a country with a rich history and an incredible culture. Haiti has been a benefactor to the world, particularly Latin America and the Caribbean. After abolishing slavery and gaining its independence, Haiti extended solidarity to the global community and strived for a better, more just world. In its more recent history, the country has faced many socioeconomic challenges that need to be addressed promptly but with a long-term view, beyond the mandate of one administration. Although finding consensus on a long-term development plan is not an easy task, it is without a doubt an imperative since we need to create more opportunities in Haiti so that Haitians with or without disabilities can find hope in Haiti, live with dignity in their home country, and avoid migrating in difficult circumstances.” In early July of 2018, Oriol returned to the United States to visit the headquarters of Food for the Poor in Coconut Creek, Florida, to personally thank the NGO for collaborating with his agency on the construction of the fifty-three accessible houses for persons with disabilities impacted by Hurricane Matthew. The day Oriol returned to Haiti, the country erupted in protest as the Prime Minister, following guidance from the International Monetary Fund, announced the elimination of fuel subsidies, which caused prices on gasoline, diesel and kerosene to increase by 38 to 51%. The IMF wanted these subsidies removed as a condition for releasing $96 million in support to Haiti from international entities such as the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, and the European Union, arguing that the Haitian government was missing out on nearly $160 million in revenues by not charging market prices for fuel. As protests turned violent, many foreign visitors sheltered in place in their hotels, while many Haitians also faced restricted mobility. Oriol was traveling in the capital that day without body guards and had to abandon his vehicle near a roadblock. The Secretary and his personal assistant enlisted local volunteers to lift his wheelchair over the rocks and burning tires of multiple barricades until he reached his final destination.
The government quickly reversed its decision on the fuel price increases and the violence soon subsided, but the incident resulted in Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant stepping down. Oriol and his Haitian government colleagues are now waiting for President Moise to nominate a new Prime Minister, who will need to be confirmed by the Haitian parliament. In the meantime, the country is returning to calm, allowing Oriol and his team to once again move the disability agenda forward—one small step at a time.
by James English
James 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.