Haiti: Building a stronger and more accessible society
The following is an interview with Gerald Oriol Jr., founder of Fondation J’aime Haiti and an advocate for disabled people in Haiti. The purpose of Fondation J’aime Haiti (I Love Haiti Foundation) is to implement a profound change in Haitian society by creating individual social and economic opportunities for Haitian youth, by removing barriers to individual choice. Gerald asserts that as many as 10 percent of Haitians are disabled, and that disabled people’s talents and skills are a great untapped resource for national development.
During our three-week trip to Haiti from August 24 to September 13, we will be visiting Fondation J’aime Haiti programs and having further conversations with Gerald. These will be incorporated into Ethan’s new book about Haiti, Bearing the Bruise: A Lifetime in Haiti, and the video footage Ben will be producing on our return.
Watch Fondation J’aime Haiti’s four-minute video “Timoun Ke Kontan” (Children with Happy Hearts) on Facebook.
- Ethan Casey and Ben Owen
What is it like for you yourself, as a disabled person, to get around and do work daily in Haiti?
It is certainly a very challenging environment. The needs of people with disabilities are rarely considered in public works and construction. Most buildings lack ramps, the sidewalks are usually occupied with street vendors trying to make a living, there are very few parking spots reserved for people with disabilities – to cite a few examples. However, I must admit that I am very much fortunate. I have been able to overcome these barriers and participate actively in economic and social activities. I view these barriers in my life as an adventure, and I take it as a duty to fight to annihilate their impact in order to allow people with disabilities to have an active and fulfilling life.
Describe the work that Fondation J’Aime Haiti does.
Fondation J’Aime Haiti strives to provide development opportunities to disadvantaged youths. Furthermore, we aim to foster cooperation and understanding among communities in order to contribute to the emergence of a much stronger and more cohesive society. With that mission in place, we have implemented several programs, including a basketball and scholarship initiative. In regards to disability, we firmly believe that disability is first and foremost a social issue. If, as a society, we consider the needs of people with disabilities, there is no reason that this marginalized group of people can’t be productive and autonomous. To help raise consciousness, we have developed a radio and awareness program called The Voice of People with Disabilities in Action.
What sorts of programs would you like to see implemented, by either the government or NGOs or both, for disabled people in Haiti?
It is imperative that we develop an accessible environment. It is not acceptable, for instance, that a wheelchair-bound person must pay double fare for transportation (i.e. for himself/herself and the wheelchair) or that he/she can’t attend school because the sidewalks and buildings do not have ramps. Furthermore, I believe it is important that we put in place training and work placement programs. The vast majority of people with disabilities are living in abject poverty and do not have the professional experience to find adequate employment, nor the training to participate in income-generating activities. In addition, I cannot stress too much the importance of an inclusive educational system. Although specialized schooling might be needed in certain cases, the vast majority of people with disabilities can be integrated in regular schools with a minimum of arrangements and training for teachers. This will open doors to many, many people with disabilities and offer a positive experience to non-disabled children.
How can disabled people contribute to Haiti’s rebuilding and economy?
Under current conditions, Haiti does not have the resources to meet the needs of people with disabilities. Although this is a serious problem, it represents an opportunity to find alternative, out of the box, and sustainable opportunities. Indeed, the difficult economic situation makes the case for integration from a competitiveness point of view, as assistive services are extremely limited and underfunded. People with disabilities can be as effective as non-disabled people in the workplace, and in many instances even more effective. Furthermore, the integration of people with disabilities can offer a positive image of the country and even help reinforce solidarity in the country. Disability affects families from all backgrounds, rich and poor, and can offer an opportunity to build a better and stronger society, based on inclusive principles.