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Critical Services Still Needed for Displaced Haitians with Disabilities

Loufin (left) and Mara (right) in
Corail Camp.

Drivers honked and yelled angrily as two wheelchairs rolled down the bustling street in Port-au-Prince, stopping traffic and catching the gaze of curious bystanders. A director of “Helping Hands, Haiti” cheered for the earthquake survivors as they wheeled through the commotion, commenting that the novelty of this scene still shocks many Haitians. At least 2,000-4,000 people underwent amputations as a result of January’s catastrophic earthquake, with some unofficial estimates placing the number closer to 10,000. This surge in the disabled population is part of what psychologists refer to when they evoke Haiti’s “new normal,” or "nouvo nomal"—an expression that is slowly being adapted into the local vocabulary and mindset.

This new visibility is an opportunity to increase awareness about disabilities in the community and among relief organizations. Often, people with disabilities are excluded from or unable to access mainstream assistance and are forgotten when specialized services are offered in times of emergencies. In light of these concerns, the Women’s Refugee Commission sent a team to Haiti in July to conduct workshop trainings entitled “Facilitating Access and Promoting Inclusion for People with Disabilities” for international and local governmental and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The workshops were based on our resource kit for field workers entitled “Disabilities Among Refugees and Conflict-Affected Populations” and geared toward Haiti’s post-earthquake context. Our team also facilitated focus groups in camps for internally displaced people to determine how well the needs of the camps’ disabled residents are being met.

Both humanitarian workers and people with disabilities reported that, unfortunately, services, when offered, are not adequate to accommodate those with special needs. All displaced Haitians are surviving in very difficult conditions, but people with disabilities are particularly vulnerable. We spoke with several Corail Camp residents with disabilities to learn how best to improve their safety and quality of life. Their stories attest to an urgent need for rehabilitative support, high quality specialized services, community education and awareness about disabilities, and a directed effort to identify and meet the needs of disabled Haitians.

A focus group in Tabarre Issa Camp.
Corail Camp is a planned relocation community home to 5,000 of Haiti’s 1.5 million displaced. The camp sits on a vast and treeless plain lined with sun-bleached gravel. Families in Corail live in white semi-cylindrical tents arranged in orderly rows. This is where we met Loufin, a single mother of three young children. Loufin was selling household goods as a street vendor in Port-au-Prince when the earthquake struck on January 12. The store next to her stand collapsed, crushing her beneath the concrete. Three days passed before she was finally pulled from the rubble and rushed to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, where her right arm and left leg were amputated. She remained in the hospital for about a month before being sent back to Haiti with a wheelchair.

Now, a prosthetic leg lies unused in Loufin’s tent. Had she been offered physical and occupational therapy, Loufin could have learned to walk wearing her prosthesis. But with no rehabilitative services available, she still relies on her wheelchair to get around. As a result, she can’t access the latrines or showers in the camp. Her wheelchair does not roll on gravel and it is very difficult for her to use crutches. She keeps a small bucket inside her tent to use as a toilet, which her eight-year-old daughter, Tanya, empties every day. Tanya also gives her mother bucket baths inside the tent.

Loufin has no income at this time and few prospects for future employment. Aid agencies have set up cash-for-work programs inside Corail Camp, but they do not hire people with disabilities. Loufin told us that she feels abandoned and isolated. She fears that should anything happen to her, she would be left inside her tent to die since she can’t leave without assistance. She has received no program services because the only way to reach them is to go out and find them herself; at the time of our visit, none of the NGOs working in Corail Camp had come to check in with Loufin.

During our visit to Corail we also met nine-year-old Mara, who gets around on crutches since losing her leg in the earthquake. Like Loufin, Mara received a prosthetic leg that she has difficulty using. Mara’s prosthesis is too big for her, causing her to lean awkwardly to one side when she tries to walk. Although we explained to Mara’s concerned father that the young girl will eventually grow into her new limb, we were discouraged that she had received a prosthesis that does not fit in the first place. Unfortunately, Mara and her father have nowhere to go for rehabilitative services or answers to their questions. Like the other families affected by disability in the camp, they are doing their best by themselves.

Our discussions with Loufin, Mara and others in Corail Camp made it clear that the needs of people with disabilities are not being met. The first step in addressing this gap will be to educate families, community members and relief workers about sensitivity awareness, caring for people with disabilities and providing services and facilities that can accommodate different needs. It is also crucial that people with disabilities be included in decisions that will affect them and be given a voice in community leadership. Rehabilitative services must be made available to make sure people who have prosthetic limbs learn how to use them and that Haitians adjusting to new disabilities can become as independent as possible.

People with disabilities possess valuable skills, knowledge and experience. They want and deserve to participate at every level of society. The people we met in the camps are eager for educational opportunities to develop new skills and the chance to work and earn income. Relief agencies and local disabilities organizations should work together to address these needs and concerns—because with the right services and support, access, opportunity and inclusion could become an alternative “new normal” in Haiti for thousands of people with disabilities.