By KHRISNA RUSSELL
Deputy Chief Reporter
WHEN the fire alarm sounded at one of the country’s busiest government facilities scores of employees frantically rushed to exit the building. Behind them they left one colleague, Tamara, terrified as she anguished how she was going to get to safety on her own.
It was only when the staff all gathered safely outside, one person realised Tamara had not joined them and returned to lead her out of the building. Tamara, not her real name, could not make it out on her own because she is disabled.
Iris Adderley, who is wheelchair bound, told The Tribune a day out in the city to handle means she has to avoid drinking. The reason: “If I drink there is no bathroom that is easily accessible.”
She added: “That’s why I say I exist, I don’t live. The ordinary person doesn’t have to stop and think whether they can easily use the restroom. But that is something I have to think about always.”
Another woman who was born blind, told us she is also concerned about the sanitary conditions in public bathrooms everywhere.
“You know, as a blind woman I have to worry about whether the bathroom is clean or not. A few times I have gotten infections because no one thinks to keep the bathrooms clean. I can only know if there is pee or stool on the toilet if someone goes ahead of me and can tell me whether the toilet is clean and wipe it up a little bit for me. But again, what are the odds of me going into a bathroom stall and someone is with me? Not every time I go will someone be there,” she said.
For these three people with disabilities there are many others throughout the country for whom these struggles are also a part of daily life.
In 2014, the disabled community thought it reached a major milestone when the Persons With Disabilities (Equal Opportunities) Act, 2014 passed unanimously in the House of Assembly. The legislation was seen as a tool to propel the country to uncharted, but progressive territory. It would be the gateway to advance the Bahamas to the same levels of accessibility in other countries around the world.
More importantly it mandated every building in the country, which the public uses, must be easily accessible to those who are blind, deaf, use a wheelchair or have other disabilities requiring particular accommodations.
Ultimately a deadline of December 31, 2017 was set to do this. It applies to all banks, supermarkets, churches, schools, complexes, government facilities and other publicly used buildings. These buildings must also have sufficient accessible parking spaces.
However, with this deadline just hours away, people with disabilities have told The Tribune, they still face widespread challenges ranging from public sensitivity, to many public places failing to make the necessary changes to accommodate their needs. They say it has been disappointing to find there remains a great deal of places around the country, particularly in the capital that have not taken the December 31 deadline seriously.
This was evident when The Tribune along with Kevin Cartwright, Ms Adderley and Da Vinci Leu-Brunson visited several places in New Providence. These included a fast-food restaurant, an automated teller machine, a supermarket, a shopping plaza, a popular pharmacy and retail stores.
Mr Cartwright, 40, was born blind and is a teacher at the Salvation Army’s Erin H Gilmour School for Blind and Visually Impaired Children. Ms Adderley is a consultant for the National Commission for Persons with Disabilities (NCPD) and Mr Leu-Brunson, 38, is profoundly deaf and earns a living as an air-conditioner and refrigeration technician.
The Tribune also spoke to a few others in the disabled community who privately voiced concerns about visiting the House of Assembly, the Registrar General’s Department and the Disabilities Commission’s offices on John F Kennedy Drive. The main issue for them is these buildings should, by now, have made the necessary upgrades to be seen as benchmarks for other facilities in the country.
They note public transportation as another challenge needing to be rectified.
So what does making a building accessible mean? According to literature provided by the National Commission for Persons with Disabilities (NCPD), a building that is accessible means people with disabilities are able to access and use the features and spaces within the building on an equal basis as all other people who enter the building.
“Accessibility means entry ways and exits, restrooms and other common areas, sales or service counters must be designed so that persons with disabilities can use them. Buildings with more than one story must have elevators or lifts,” the NCPD says.
‘I don’t live. I exist’
As we visited a popular supermarket, it was evident finding accessible parking is definitely one of the most vexing issues for people with disabilities.
It took Ms Adderley more than 20 minutes to park her modified van near the store’s entrance, and even then this was done illegally because she was forced to make a space of her own beside where other cars were parked in the designated accessible spots. Of the cars parked in the area solely for people with disabilities, two of the cars should not have been there.
Once inside the store, we experienced first hand a typical visit to the grocery store. There are no braille labels to decipher the kinds of food items on the shelves. However, the aisles are wide enough for easy maneuvering and most items were within arms reach. When it all comes down to it, visiting the grocery store or any other retail store for most people with disabilities requires the assistance of a willing and patient store employee.
Ms Adderley highlighted one wide spread problem.
“One of my major challenges is bathrooms. I stopped looking at them because they are just not accessible,” she said.
Asked to explain, Ms Adderley continued: “How can you go? There is none to go. It’s like today; the only thing I had was an energy bar. I was just saying how dehydrated I am. It’s because if I drink there is no bathroom that is easily accessible. That’s why I say I exist, I don’t live. You don’t have to stop and think, well is there a bathroom I can easily use? But I have to think that way.”
For his part, Mr Cartwright spoke of the absence of accessible paper currency, which often leaves those who are blind vulnerable to theft.
“We do not have here in the Bahamas accessible paper currency. The coins are accessible because you can feel those and decipher by touch what a quarter is or a dime, nickel or penny is, but as far as paper money goes, that seems to be a challenge.
“Now I have noticed some of the new bills have some little raised dots on them, the ten and five (bills). However, the cluster of dots is basically the same so it can be confusing. We need to find a way to make currency available to people who are blind or visually impaired because we cannot simply place our trust in people when it comes to our finances.
“For example if I want to take a taxi somewhere, that’s a total stranger, and if the cost of the fair is $15 dollars and I have a straight $20 who is to say that when that individual gives me the change and it happens to be one note and he says that it’s five that it’s actually a five and not a one dollar bill? Even when you go into the stores we depend heavily on trustworthiness. So we really need accessible currency as well.”
And when it comes to sensitivity, Mr Cartwright said in settings like these, there is much to be desired as he is often sidestepped and ignored. He is “irked” every time this occurs, he told The Tribune as we spoke at the grocery store.
“Say for example I go into a local grocer and purchase an item and instead of a cashier returning the change to me they are going to give it to a person who is with me. That irks me for every time that happens. If someone accompanies me I always take the opportunity to correct that. And I find that in going to a lot of the same places, people become familiar with me and don’t repeat those things any more.
“Even some people who want to know things about me, they would address commentary about me to the people that are with me rather than to me. I find that disrespectful and that’s dehumanising because I am completely able to communicate for myself and talk to anyone about me.”
The experience was similar at several other retail stores we visited.
While paying for items is one thing, Mr Cartwright said retrieving the money from ATMs is another.
When he lived in West Virginia in the United States for several years, using an ATM was easy, but at home using the machine is very different.
We visited an ATM on Bay Street. There was braille on its keys, along with an earphone jack, but it did not speak. This made navigating its various functions extremely difficult.
“In the US, everything talks from the point of input. When you get there, it tells you to enter your pin asking what you want to do, all those options are spoken. To provide the user with security, the ATMs also have an earphone jack and the screen goes blank so no one can see what’s on the screen. So I don’t know how much research has been put into it but this should be a part of the change and is something that we would want to see.”
Americans are also more open to the acceptance of assistance dogs, Mr Cartwright said. He grew accustomed to using a guide dog in the US.
The irony in this government imposed December 31 deadline is there are quite a few state owned buildings that are quite frankly nightmares for people with disabilities.
The House of Parliament where the law was passed, the Registrar General’s Department and the Disabilities Commission’s offices on John F Kennedy Drive fall into this category.
One official, who did not want to be named, said the Commission’s offices should be the perfect example of an accessible government building.
Instead, the kitchen is not accessible for someone who uses a wheelchair, the ramps are narrow and not long enough and toilet facilities are inaccessible, making for a building that is not up to code.
“It needs to be mentioned the Commission offices should be the benchmark,” the official said. “What the building does is it stops you from being independent because the doors don’t have the proper opening. There is a knob on the door to open it instead of something you put your hand through or a lever to push it down.
“The toilet facilities are not accessible or up to code. They have an accessible sign but it’s not accessible.
“Being able to get in and out of the building on your own is a challenge. The ramps are not only narrow, but they are not long enough. If someone in a wheelchair is going up the ramp they have to lean forward or else their chair would slip. You just can’t be dependent if you are in a wheelchair. The bottom line is the place is not up to code. Most of these government buildings are not,” the official added.
And at the Registrar General’s Department, there are no accessible parking spots meaning those who need certain accommodations must either go to the back of the building to find parking or park at the General Post Office on East Hill Street.
The official continued: “If government officials are going around inspecting buildings and making sure they are not breaking the law how can a government building be breaking the rules?”
It’s a similar situation at the House of Assembly.
“A person with a wheelchair can’t get in there without being lifted in and out,” the official said. “It’s dehumanising. On the other side of it, what if someone in the House, an MP becomes disabled tomorrow? How do they function? Everyone should have free access.”
The deaf community is also faced with great challenges, Mr Leu-Brunson said. Not only does he have a hearing aid, but he uses sign language to communicate and lip reads when people do not speak loud enough for him to understand.
Because many others in the community are not in this position, Mr Leu-Brunson said he fears those who are deaf could face continued marginalisation.
“It’s getting a bit better, but a lot needs to be done,” he said.
“Everybody is talking but there is no action. We need more help for those people who want to find jobs and given equal opportunities like everyone else.”
He continued: “Because I have partial hearing I am able to understand. But there are a lot of people who don’t talk loud enough for me to understand, so I would tell them I need to read your lips. Like, for example, if I go into a bank or into Cable Bahamas there is a challenge because the people are not saying ‘who’s next’ loud enough and in that case I have to lip read, so it’s hard at some things but it’s not hard at others.
“But for those who are completely deaf it’s going to be a real challenge for them. Most interact with other deaf people very quickly but there are some who can’t get the attention of others and that frustrates them. I think they easily get upset and frustrated because no one wants to help them.
“Say, for example if they went into a shop people would not recognise that they are deaf right away until they hear the slur in their voice, not understanding them, so it’s going to be a challenge.”
Light at the end of the tunnel
This is where OllyMae Knowles comes in, at least partly.
She has launched transport services with a fleet of about 12 vehicles for people with disabilities to combat the exorbitant costs associated with transportation and to ensure those in the community are no longer exposed to prejudices often experienced in trying to use jitneys and taxis.
At $10 round trip, the service has been a blessing for those who really need it.
She said: “I’ve been in forums where they indicate that there seems to be a level of prejudice. So someone sees a cane or someone in a wheelchair that already sends up a barrier of ‘OK I don’t think I want to be bothered, this person is going to hinder me moving quickly’ and so that creates a challenge.
“Then some of the vehicles are not appropriate for the disability type. A jitney, at least some of them need to have the special equipment to accommodate certain types of wheelchairs.
“I was very much familiar with the lack thereof because, even now with a label with the sticker on your car, you still see people driving as if asking, ‘why are you on the road,’ assuming that I am perhaps a person with a disability rather than me being someone who is moving a person with a disability to engage in social events or to do business, banking or go to a restaurant and those types of things,” she said.
*Some names have been changed to protect persons with disabilities who fear they may be victimised for voicing their concerns.