Hope amid despair
Twelve-year-old Lebron Minnis was born blind, but often feels invisible to people who can see.
Sixty-year-old Ricardo Farquharson can’t hear, but also feels like he has no voice.
The sense that their concerns are ignored is pervasive among many in the disabled community.
For some, despair has set in.
Others, tired of being lumped in the “special” category, are speaking out.
“I want to know why is this happening,” asked Minnis as he addressed the National Commission for Persons with Disabilities Town Hall Meeting last week.
“Why aren’t people helping us?”
Minnis, the youngest attendee with the loudest voice, decried the conditions in which some disabled people have to exist in The Bahamas.
Farquharson, who struggled to make his position clear, spoke through an interpreter, as he sought to shed light on the difficulties that those in the deaf community face.
A victim of two house break-ins over the last several years, Farquharson said he and others like him need help.
Farquharson wasn’t home either time his house was invaded, but said the homes of many deaf people are raided while they are sleeping in their beds.
“They don’t know that someone is at the door,” Farquharson said. “They have no way of knowing.
“Some of the deaf have doorbells where lights flash. Unless you have something like that you won’t know. Some of them, they’re home and they’re asleep when their homes are broken into.”
He recalled one such case involving a deaf couple. He said they only realized what happened when they got up the following morning.
“They take advantage of the deaf, plenty times,” he said.
Farquharson was two when his mother first learned he was deaf.
“My mom would call me and say, ‘come’, but I couldn’t hear. She thought I was rude. She would spank me on my hand again and again. She took me to the hospital and we found out.”
He said his mother eventually sent him to one of the first schools for the deaf in 1964. He said he learned sign language from a “lady from England”, back when there were even fewer resources for the deaf.
As he grew older, Farquharson said he was bullied and beaten because he couldn’t hear. Now, he and others face a different kind of abuse.
Through it all, he said, “God protects me.”
Rose Rahming, an interpreter from Bethel Baptist Church, translated for several deaf people, including Farquharson, during last week’s meeting.
She also condemned the mistreatment of members of the deaf community, as she pointed to a woman who was abused by her boyfriend on a Family Island.
Rahming said when the woman found the courage to report the abuse, police could not understand her and allegedly eventually ignored her attempts to report the matter.
The victim, whose name is being withheld, recounted her ordeal at the meeting. While she eventually got away from her boyfriend, she said her situation is still dire.
Multiple government agencies still have challenges communicating with the hearing-impaired. Though many in the deaf community are astute lip readers, some have trouble verbalizing their thoughts, according to Rahming. They suffer as a result.
“There are times when I have to go to the courts,” said Rahming, who has a full-time job.
“There are times when something happens, an accident or a fight involving a deaf person, the police would call me. The hospital would call me as well. A deaf person would come in and the doctors, nurses and attendants don’t know what’s wrong with them.”
Rahming has even found herself back in the classroom, where she sometimes interprets for those in search of higher education. Still, it is not enough.
While there are likely lots of deaf people who are having an easier time navigating through life, Rahming said they are probably in the minority.
A blind boy’s dream
Though blind, Minnis, who attends Erin Gilmour School for the Blind, is much like any other school-aged boy. He loves to play at the park, he enjoys movies and hanging out with friends.
For obvious reasons, the similarities begin to dry up from there.
When many of us were young, our parents taught us to look left, right, then left again before crossing the street.
As expected, Minnis, who travels with his walking cane, employs a different protocol. He steps to the side of the road, raises his cane and waits.
“I wave to the cars to stop, but they just keep going,” he told National Review. “It’s like they don’t see me at all. It’s like they’re blind, not me.”
Asked if he feels ignored, Minnis said “yes”.
Minnis said there are many instances where the blind are overlooked, even disregarded.
“I would like to see things change in this country,” he said. “When you go to the various banks, they don’t have ATMs that talk to you. Basically, you have to see everything. I want ATMs to talk to you when you’re making your transactions and things like that.
“In the theaters, I want them to get something in the movie theaters that would tell you what they’re doing on the screen. The audio is nice, but you don’t know what they’re doing on the screen. So, I would like to get headphones to tell blind persons what they’re doing.”
As he barrels toward his 13th birthday, Minnis, a budding musician, remains optimistic, buoyed by the love of his family.
His mother, father and aunt accompanied him at the meeting.
“The good thing about it is I have my parents, my teachers and friends. They treat me good,” he said with a smile.
His mother, Doralin Albury, said the entire family looks out for her son.
In a world that’s becoming increasingly self-absorbed, she has no other choice.
She expressed hope that life will become easier for her son in the future.
When the Persons with Disabilities Equal Opportunities Bill passed in 2014, it offered those in the disabled community a glimmer of hope.
It brought national attention to an issue that was largely ignored.
Unfortunately, as the arms on the clock continue to turn, that hope is being slowly snuffed out.
Under the act, it is illegal to deny a disabled person equal access to opportunities for suitable employment.
Additionally, businesses that have 100 employees or more would be required to employ a minimum number of disabled people.
The bill states that not less than one percent of qualified disabled people have to be employed at such businesses.
Employers would be barred from discriminating against disabled people in relation to recruitment; advertisement for employment; creation, classification or abolition of posts; determination or allocation of wages, salaries, pensions or other such benefits and the choices for training, advancement or promotion.
On January 1, 2016, the provisions of the Persons with Disabilities Equal Opportunities Act pertaining to accessibility to public buildings and parking came into force, starting the clock for proprietors of public spaces to ensure compliance with rules governing accessibility for persons with disabilities. The clock timed out more than a year ago.
A drive around town would reveal that many of these components are not being adhered to. Many businesses still don’t have disabled parking and multiple offices are still not disabled-friendly, including several government offices.
This is especially disappointing as the government ought to be leading by example.
Another key component of the legislation provides for the establishment of the National Commission for Persons with Disabilities, which is charged with protecting disabled people.
Dr. Anthony Hamilton, a commissioner, admits that it’s an uphill battle.
However, he said the commission is chipping away at the myriad issues those in the disabled community face.
Still, a lot of people have grown weary and frustrated. It’s no surprise that some of that frustration has turned into anger and much of that is directed at the commission.
Hamilton takes the criticism in stride, as he assured the attendees of the meeting that the commission is not resting on its laurels.
However, he acknowledged that the commission does not yet have sufficient inspectors to ensure compliance.
“Coming back to your issues with the inspectors, it’s a burning issue for commissioners,” Hamilton said during the meeting. “It’s a burning, burning, burning issue.
“I’m stressing that because we are actively engaged, and with the authority and power that we have as the commission, we seek to have that addressed as soon as possible.
“…I wish it were tonight. What has been happening…the reality is that commissioners have been executing inspections.
“…We are not playing with this. We are not joking. You may not see the results coming in as fast as you would like to see the results coming, but trust me, we are pressing through, seeking results.
“It’s one thing to make the observation from the outside, but a lot of things are happening on the inside. There are a lot of hurdles on the inside and we are seeking to mitigate those hurdles with the view of breaking out and [giving] you the results that you are very much deserving of.”
Maria Kelly, executive secretary of the Secretariat for the National Commission for Persons with Disabilities, said the commission is working to create public awareness, while also working with various agencies to ensure the government is doing its part.
“Many of our government buildings are not in compliance,” she acknowledged. “We are meeting with the proper persons, the permanent secretaries and directors to say, ‘We have to be the forerunners.’
“But we do have a sub-committee that is working on accessibility issues.
“There are some other things that should happen here. Persons go into the bank as hearing-impaired, and the teller may say ‘next’. The person can’t hear.
“We are speaking with the clearing banks to deal with situations like that. Maybe a flickering light would work.”
She said the Central Bank is also considering making some improvements on Bahamian currency, so that the visually impaired can identify various notes.
Kelly added that the commission is also working with the malls and large plazas to designate the appropriate number of parking spots for the disabled.
“We’re hoping that by the end of the year that you will see major changes,” she said.
It’s a mammoth task, no doubt.
Last November, Attorney General Carl Bethel said there remains an overwhelming cultural negativity in The Bahamas toward people with disabilities.
Bethel made the observation in the Senate – a place that is not disabled-friendly.
“Despite the passage of the Persons with Disabilities Act in 2014, there is still an overwhelming cultural negativity which must be fought with the same passion and vigor that all of the previous struggles for human rights and emancipation were,” Bethel said.
“We have to fight against the enslavement and the dehumanizing, ostracism and shunning that has for too long affected persons with disabilities in our country.
“I am proud to say that in my ministry we have persons who we have employed, who are fully blind, totally deaf and the employees both perform stellar and outstanding work.”
Providing jobs to people with disabilities is a wonderful start. But the government must go further.
There were more than 10,000 disabled people in The Bahamas and only 17 percent of those 15 or older were employed, according to the 2010 Census Disability Report.
We must all work to change the status quo.
Erin Brown, who is physically disabled, reminds us, “Disability rights are human rights.”
Education: Benedict College, BA in Mass Communications