CaribWorldNews, PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Weds. June 9, 2010: `Once I went into a shop to buy a toothbrush` says Eder Romeus, his expression intense, pained. `The woman waved me away when she saw my crutches. She thought I was a beggar.`
Such misunderstandings are common in the lives of handicapped people in Haiti, which has grown since the now famous January 12, 2010 earthquake that killed over 200,000 and left thousands more maimed for life.
The disabled face not only the physical obstacles that come with an almost complete lack of buildings with disabled facilities, but the mental barriers thrown up by society.
`It`s not uncommon for people like me to be thrown out of apartments and houses, because the landlords think we bring bad luck or are being punished by spirits for some misdeed` Romeus said.
He`s faced a lifetime of this kind of discrimination since losing the use of his legs to polio in early childhood. `Even my father, he brought me to the local docteur feuilles [traditional healer] to see if there was a bad spirit in me when I first got sick` he goes on. `When they realised that wasn`t it, they took me to the hospital, but not all families do that.`
Two years ago Romeus, a handsome 28-year-old Haitian with serious eyes, founded ACCENH (Action Commune pour l`Ecadrement des Handicapés], a community group that aims to help disabled people in his town, Jacmel, improve their lives. They have almost no funds, and most of their activity is carried out by Romeus himself, who tries to find jobs, lodging and training opportunities for the 70 people he supports. `It`s not easy, obviously. Training is particularly hard as training places, like trade schools or universities, don`t have any kind of facilities for disabled people,` he says. `In fact, there are no specially adapted cars, buildings or public transport services anywhere in Haiti. `I feel like a soldier every morning, planning the manoeuvres that will get me through the tasks I`ve got to do through the day.`
Another part of the association`s activities is to raise awareness about the situation of the disabled in Haitian society through performance and art. `We put on shows, sometimes,` said Romeus. `We want to emphasise our talents and abilities, not just our problems. I`m a painter, and any works I sell provide funds for our work.`
This year, Eder was chosen as a `hero` by an organisation called Sawa Global, which tries to provide a platform for community figures who are doing unrecognised work to help others. He hopes that his presence on the Sawa Global website will help him make connections with similar groups in other places, form partnerships and ultimately raise the funds he needs to open a training centre and shop to teach disabled people art skills and help them earn a living.
There are no reliable figures on the total number of disabled people in Haiti, but a study conducted 20 years ago put the number at 300,000. Ironically, the earthquake which struck Haiti in January this year might just prove to be a catalyst in the attitudes of Haitian society towards the handicapped.
The quake created an estimated 5,000 more disabled people, with prostheses now a common sight in the streets of Port-au-Prince and elsewhere. `People have realised that this could happen to anyone, rich or poor. Disabled people are no different to anyone else. It`s up to us now to start making things work better here for people with disabilities,` says Romeus. `So that`s something good, at least, can come out of something so bad.`