‘Thank god we live well. We are not fighting. We have all kinds of problems, but at least we don’t get wet in the rain’. These are the words of Mason Egene, a 63-year old paralyzed victim of the 2010 Haiti Earthquake. Mason is one of the about 500 residents of shelters created especially for the disabled victims of the Earthquake- the neat plywood shelters along tidy gravel lanes. Here, they formed a social community, finding reprieve in each other’s company and figuring out ingenious, if unusual, ways of survival- ramps for their wheelchairs made out of discarded pool furniture and solar-powered lights to help the deaf communicate with sign language.
“La-Piste” camp, situated near the airport at Port-Au-Prince in Haiti, hosts around 370 shelters for the speech and hearing impaired and other people with disabilities caused due to the quake. It was set up by the Federation of the Red Cross which had signed an agreement with the previous administration of President Rene Preval to use the land until January 2013.
But, this rosy scenario is coming to an end as the government plans on reclaiming the land. On being asked further, Gerald Oriol Jr., the Secretary of State for the Integration of Persons with Disabilities commented that ‘the land is not theirs and the owner wants it back’ and refused to give any statement about the “owner” concerned. The residents have been given 6-9 months to make the move.
The government, though, doesn’t seem to have any backup for the rehabilitation of the residents except for the money for rent and some extra cash. This lack of interest to provide proper rehabilitation to the residents will only add up to the already growing amounts of “after- catastrophe” tents and shanties.
Apart from the economical blows that the residents will have to suffer once they are kicked out, they would have to face another trial, that of being disabled in one of the poorest countries, where being disabled is more than a social stigma, it is a curse, and a lifelong one at that because very few of the blind, deaf and amputed have access have to any form of therapy or rehabilitation. In a country where people are afraid to even touch the disabled and long stares are an inevitable part of your existence, a separate shelter for the handicapped is indeed a blessing. “I feel normal here because there are other people who are handicapped just like me” said a 25-year old blind boy and a resident of La Piste.
Even among all the uncertainty, two US religious groups, Mission of Hope of Fort Myers, Florida, and 410 Bridge Inc., of Alpharetta, Georgia, are building 500 houses in the town of Leveque, out of which some are reserved for the disabled residents of La Piste; but most of them want to stay as they are well-adjusted to the capital and don’t want to be uprooted from the well-structured social setup that had formed in the last two years.
Red Cross shelter coordinator James Bellamy said that “if the government seizes the land before January the residents would be eligible for a rental subsidy for 500 USD for one year and another 500 USD to help out. They can also enroll in courses to learn skills in carpentry, sewing and masonry”.
“We’ll be talking to the government and households down there to see if we can advocate for any long-term solutions,” Bellamy said. “There’s no plan for them to go anywhere.”
Although the disabled hold better standing in the society of the country than ever before, there is still much room for more sensitivity regarding their condition. If those who have a say in such matters do not show any concern, how can we expect the ignorant, ruthless society to behave any differently?
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