Disabled left to live a half life


Erin Brown


Tribune Staff Reporter


DISABLED people in the Bahamas are subject to a half-life that is starved of opportunities, according to cancer survivor and amputee Erin Brown yesterday.

As the government continues public consultation on draft legislation to outlaw discrimination against those with disabilities, Ms Brown outlined harsh realities that she feels are evident of a systemic disregard for true equality or improved quality of life.

After years of attempting to inspire her community through personal achievements, Ms Brown said she now believes that the only way to implement true reform, and break the destructive cycle of dependence, is through professional lobbying. 

She said technical training was sorely needed if the disenfranchised community stood any chance at impacting the status quo.

Speculation over when the proposed disabilities bill will make it to Parliament were among concerns expressed by disabled persons yesterday.

Samuel Strachan, a 53-year-old blind volunteer at the Bahamas National Council for Disability (BNCD), listed National Insurance contributions for the disabled; an updated census of the disabled population; and sidewalk maintenance, as his top concerns for reform.

He said he felt that it was unfair that once employed, disabled persons had to relinquish their government financial assistance. Mr Strachan underscored that because most disabled persons hold menial low-income jobs, assistance should be minimised but not cut after they gain employment.

His wife, Taimina, said: “We want to know if we can work, but still get our pay, our NIB. If I work, my money will get taken away. I need an explanation. It’s like you sacrifice your independence, either you lose your job or you lose your NIB.”

According to the Strachans, their individual monthly NIB assistance is $256, which they supplement with food coupons valued at $80 per month.

Mr Strachan said: “You can’t live off of that. If I have to pay rent, light, water, now how can I buy a pants and a shirt? You just (got to) make it off of National Insurance and food coupons.”

Recently married, Mr Strachan said that it was difficult for the couple to live independently given the oversubscription and poor state of government-run rentals.

He added that the state of sidewalks makes it difficult for disabled people to walk on the streets.

“I was looking for the government to deal with the sidewalks. It’s critical to not only just me, but people with wheelchairs, more likely they’ll roll themselves to the hospital from the Council. You have to manoeuvre into traffic because of the bad sidewalks and then try to hurdle back onto the sidewalk, and you’re lucky if you are able to get to do that.

“If you are someone who had a stroke and have to badly drag your foot, when you’re in Nassau you have to lift your foot and you have to be careful because the sidewalk is high and in some cases there are potholes in the sidewalk. I’ve had problems where cars park up on the sidewalk, I really don’t like that, the sidewalks are not for cars. I have to go around into traffic or squeeze myself along the side to pass.”

Mr Strachan said he has been blind since age 14. He said many disabled people become hermits because they have little help to travel around the city.

“They just stay in the house,” he said. “Traffic-wise, if they don’t have nobody to escort them then they stay home, and even when they come out and they have to go to certain businesses – you have to climb so much steps.”

Before the Constitutional Commission last year, BNCD President Sheila Culmer said less than one per cent of the number of persons thought to have disabilities are registered with the Department of Social Services.

According to 2010 Census figures, there were 10,138 disabled people living in the country in 2010.

Of that figure, only 17 per cent of those who are 15 or older were employed.

According to the data, there were 5,250 disabled males and 4,888 disabled females in the country at the time.

The government’s proposed bill, “Persons With Disabilities Equal Opportunities Bill, 2013,” was made public in December, and consultation began in January.

It aims to give equal access to opportunities, education and training; and eliminate discrimination.

A central component of the bill is to establish the national commission for persons with disabilities, which will provide operational oversight of policy and objectives.

Ms Brown is a 33-year-old mother and entrepreneur, who struggled with sporadic employment and has never been able to qualify for disability assistance.

She said the legislation is painfully silent on the needs of mature disabled persons.

She said the disconnect with the older community was prevalent across all sectors, and true reform would only come from the establishment of effective infrastructure, and an overhaul of the agenda.

She said: “It’s so insufficient, I get it that we have to take care of kids, and look out for kids. But what about persons in my age group? Persons that have already passed through high school, if they were able to go to high school, or that have gone to college? If they come back, what are they coming back to?

“Nothing’s happening, we’re falling into cracks, we’re creating new potholes. There is nothing there for us.”

Ms Brown said: “There’s no infrastructure set up, the legislation is cute and all, but it’s not going to do anything for those who are actually trying to live life, trying to be an asset to the community. I feel like it just sets you up for failure.

“You’re going to give me these things up until I get to a certain age where I’m still a dependent, then I get to an independent age now what?”

“After going through what you’ve been through all these years, where are you pulling from this desire to continue on? I’ve seen people who are beaten down and there’s no end in sight.

“They’re hurt, they’re literally hurt, they’re tired, frustrated, because what is there to look forward to? Where in all of that fog are they supposed to see, to dream, to wish, wonder, create something in their minds?”

Ms Brown said: “The only thing they want to do is survive, they want to thrive and being a high school student how is that possible? They don’t see it as a possibility, and they’re begging, and now begging is a job. That’s the only way some of them eat.

The BNCD is a body made up of 15 members – five from the community of persons with disabilities; five ministries: works, youth, sports and culture, health, education, and transport; one member representing unions, civic groups and employers each; and two representing caregivers.

According to Mr Strachan, the body is seeking sponsorship to send a team to the 2014 Centre for Independent Living of Broward ADA Expo in July. 

The annual showcase features educational workshops, sports programmes, and demonstrations on the latest technologies for disabled persons. 

For more information on how to support the BNCD, interested persons can contact 328-8533.


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