PORT-AU-PRINCE – Luis Metayer lost his left leg in a car accident 15 years ago and now walks with a prosthesis. When the January 12 earthquake hit Haiti, Metayer, 47, leaned on his 14 year-old daughter to get out of the building collapsing on them, in downtown Port-au-Prince.
Neither was hurt, but seeing the injured around him wrapping their limbs together with shirts, Metayer, an advocate of the rights of the handicapped since his own accident, immediately thought of the thousands of disabled the earthquake would leave behind.
“A small girl amputated of both legs, where can she go in a country like this?” Metayer asked, lamenting Haiti’s lack of resources for the disabled, before and after the earthquake. “The structures are just not in place.”
In a barely recovering country where shelter, mobility and access to basic services are a struggle for everyone, making the city wheelchair-friendly is not exactly a priority on everyone’s mind. But under the leadership of charity for the disabled Christian Blind Mission (CBM), several Haitian organizations for the handicapped – including Metayer’s Handicap Federation – joined the three year-old Haitian Secretariat of State for Integration of Persons with Disabilities, to advocate for inclusion of the disabled in plans for the country’s reconstruction.
“Now that we have to re-plan the country for everyone we should do that by including the handicapped,” said Odnel Eleazard, a project manager for CBM at a workshop he led to take advantage of momentum offered by the earthquake and launch a coalition of disability advocacy groups.
Recent amputee Anne Luze Denestant, 26, and Beatrice Leveille, 30, met last week at the workshop. Before January 12, Denestant had never given a thought to the life of the disabled in Haiti. Leveille, on the other hand, on crutches since polio left her crippled at age 3, knew that life all too well.
“For me being disabled used to mean being someone who can’t do anything,” said Leveille, who joined the Association of the Handicapped in Carrefour (ASHCAR). Denestant objected.
“That’s not true, you can do a lot,” she said. “You can work with people.”
After the earthquake Denestant spent almost three days awake, trapped under the rubble of her home, in Delmas 30. When they finally pulled her out, she spent three more days in a local hospital that had run out of medications, was moved from clinic to clinic, and finally taken to the Dominican Republic, where doctors told her there was no hope to save her left arm.
Smiling, Denestant said she has adapted to the change. Wearing a yellow blouse that covered her shoulders, she added she was just relieved the pain was gone. She will no longer be able to work as a hairdresser, her job before the earthquake, but she plans to study and work with traumatized people.
“I’m strong, I don’t think about my arm,” Denestant said, adding that what is worse is living in the overcrowded and rain-flooded Petionville golf club, where thousands of the displaced have moved since January.
People with disabilities amounted to some 10 percent of the entire population before the earthquake, which caused up to 4,000 new handicaps, Handicap International estimates.
Eleazard, the CBM coordinator, who has a vision impairment and wears thick glasses, joined the organization when it came to the country in February, for fear that the disabled wouldn’t get access to aid, but soon decided the earthquake was an opportunity to push further for the rights of the handicapped.
“Right now the government is working on a code of construction and the focus is on anti-seismic buildings,” Eleazard said. “They are not paying enough attention to accessibility and we want to redirect their attention that way.”
Disability advocacy is not new in Haiti, with groups like the Haitian Society for the Blind (SHAA), which has been around since 1952. In July 2009, Haiti signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and last month it passed a law for the integration of the handicapped.
In addition to working at the policy level, the coalition Eleazard is promoting aims to change the ignorance surrounding disability in Haiti.
“We talked to engineering firms rebuilding schools and asked them why they wouldn’t make them wheelchair accessible,” said Jeanne Dominique Dimanche, another CBM staffer. “They were amazed, they had never heard of that.”
Before the earthquake, people with disabilities were stigmatized and isolated. Handicapped children would be hidden at home or sent to the countryside.
“They didn’t play with other kids because people thought those kids would become handicapped too,” said Josue Joseph, a spokesperson at the Secretariat, which has been working on educating Haitians about disability. Joseph sees the number of amputees after the earthquake as an opportunity to end this discrimination.
“This is a great occasion because everyone saw what happened, in most families now there is at least a disabled person,” he said, adding that the Secretariat is pushing hard for the government to take action.
In a country so deeply debilitated, he said, this is a chance for all to understand disability and take concrete steps to help the disabled.
“This question affects everyone,” Joseph said. “January 12 proved that we are all potential handicapped.”