2010-01-22 10:47:04

Port-au-Prince, 20 January 2010: Jonathan Boulet-Groulx offers troubling testimony in the aftermath of the earthquake: “I have a bad feeling when I walk the streets of Port-au-Prince and don’t see even one person with a disability. Is it really possible, in a country where an estimated 10% of the population have disabilities, that there wouldn’t be at least a few people with disabilities on the streets, looking for water or food?”

Jonathan says “maybe” – he’s not categorically claiming anything; he’s making an observation. But, sadly, it wouldn’t be the first time that the most vulnerable people were the first victims of a catastrophe. In a communiqué issued in November 2008 at the height of the financial crisis, the European Disability Forum pleaded with the political authorities of the continent to avoid imposing a disproportionate measure of the collective sacrifice on the most vulnerable people. “It has long been common practice that people with disabilities are the last to be hired and the first to be let go. The decline of the economic situation has already led a number of countries to consider eliminating the gains made [in the treatment of vulnerable people], as in Ireland, Hungary, Sweden, and Italy.”

As long we go on thinking of the most vulnerable people as a burden on, rather than as leaven in, society, we will tend to make them scapegoats in times of crisis. Everything will change when we have finally understood that they increase social capital; that social capital and natural capital are ends, in relation to which financial capital is but a means, and that in being vigilant about these “ends” during difficult times, society is, in effect, watching over its own interests, building up its resilience, that is, its capacity to surmount major challenges.

Back to Haiti: On 15 September 2009, Frank Joly wrote the following on the French site, Handicap International: “There are few services or local organizations dedicated to people with disabilities [in Haiti]. Handicap International’s arrival there (after the floods in 2008) and the beginning of our work were therefore very gratefully received by the people, in particular by people with disabilities. The country is very poor, regularly hit by natural catastrophes, not to mention political troubles that just add to the situation. Government structures are in their infancy. A state secretariat for the integration of people with disabilities was established two years ago, but it does not have adequate resources.”

Since the earthquake, the media has had little to say about this secretariat, nor about the fate of people with disabilities. Jonathan’s anxiety is justified. Certainly, the Handicap International movement is developing a stronger presence in Haiti. Likewise, many other organizations, such as Oxfam, Caritas Haiti, and L’Arche are active there as well, and are attuned to those who are most vulnerable, but there are so many other urgent demands that we no doubt have good reason to fear for them.

I hear the bracing voice of the writer, Danny Laferriere: Life goes on; there is no curse on Haiti. This isn’t the time to shield this country from its fundamental obligations. In the name of common humanity, we must instead do everything we can to see that the fate of the most vulnerable is placed at the top of the list of priorities during the reconstruction. The catastrophe will have multiplied disabilities.

In response to an architect who argued that reconstruction is urgent, Danny Laferriere reminds us that beauty is a fundamental need of the human soul. For the same reason, we must pay the most attention to institutions that appear to be luxuries, such as the national Paralympic Committee. In 2008, this group organized the Paralympic Games, which brought together participants from all regions of the country.

We will soon be publishing an article written by the former mayor of Vancouver, Sam Sullivan, on the theme of “Sport and Belonging.” We will be keeping an eye on the Vancouver Games and will take advantage of the occasion to ask our friends in Vancouver to pledge their support for the Haitian Paralympic Games. And we commit ourselves to following news of the reconstruction projects closely so that we can be assured that these vital luxuries will not be neglected.

Jacques Dufresne is the editor of  L'Encyclopédie de L'Agora. He founded the journal Critère, was columnist at  La Presse durging eight years and Le Devoir  during seven year. He organised  many colloquiums and public debates of some importance. [Read more ...]

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