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Commentary: Poverty and disability in the Caribbean: Who will write my story?
Published on December 10, 2013 Email To Friend    Print Version

By Rebecca Theodore

I watched in brazen shame and silence as the air stewardess poked jokes at the invalid man in the wheelchair as he was being lifted into the LIAT airplane.

“Now where is he going? Why didn’t he just stay in his bed?” she asked rudely. “The man is a cripple.”

Rebecca Theodore is an op-ed columnist based in Washington, DC. She writes on national security and political issues. Follow her on twitter @rebethd or email at
It then suddenly dawned on me that the language used in the description of poverty and disability in the Caribbean is seriously marginalized and that most poor, disabled people are not limited by their disabilities but by the stigma that society has placed upon them.

According to the World Bank, “Persons with disabilities on average as a group experience worse socio-economic outcomes than persons without disabilities, such as less education, worse health outcomes, less employment, and higher poverty rates.”

Contrary to many popular impression, the appalling human rights condition experienced by the poor and disabled in many Caribbean communities has remained largely unaddressed and people with disabilities are commonly the subjects of de jure and de facto discrimination on a daily basis.

Although the human rights system encompasses the principles of equality and non-discrimination, discrimination among the poor and disabled in the Caribbean continues to occur in a range of arenas, including the workplace, schools, health care facilities, government, recreational facilities, and many more societal contexts.

As a result of discrimination, segregation from society, economic marginalization, and a broad range of other human rights violations, the poor and disabled are consistently being excluded from the decision-making fora.

While some Caribbean governments and societies have adopted a social inclusion and a rights-based approach to disability issues, many more are continuing to rely on a charity model of assistance or a narrow medical model that focuses on finding medical “solutions” to limitations caused by a disability and ignore the need to address the massive array of limitations created and imposed by discrimination, exclusion, and ignorance.

If laws exist to protect the helpless from mistreatment, then it is time we begin to look at the traditional customs that are continuing to work against the poor and disabled in the Caribbean and pay attention to the grammatical categories that continue to be the mechanism which influence cultural thought patterns.

Studies show that many poor and disabled people in the Caribbean continue to be exorcized in insults in which there are no escape because meaning is what is conferred upon it. Many Caribbean societies continue to draw lines of contamination between poverty and disability leaving stripes of marginalization and isolation, where “the poor and disabled live an undefined reality, in fear of deprivation, dislodgment and where they die a social death -- a form of liminality in which they seems responsible for their lot in life.”

Given these results, Caribbean governments must now implement tangible procedures, making sure that the poor and disabled are fully aware of their rights under the law. The throng of poor and disabled people in the Caribbean do not know their rights, making it easy for social constructs in the interpretation of poverty and disability to be rendered possible, and defined by society and given meaning by culture.

If a legally empowered populace is both the guarantor and essence of democracy, then the targets must include precautions and protocols to ensure that everybody, regardless of background or status, has full access to their basic human rights.

Thus, it is in moving from this veil of ignorance, and evoking the wounds of political and social consciousness that Caribbean societies will be able to excavate and retrieve lives imprisoned in dark cocoons of isolation to an emergence where they can be placed inside the formal social system.
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J. Williams:

Ms Theodore, I have always admired your beauty and brilliance. God must love you to give you both. I just want to tell you to keep up the good work and thank you for bringing attention to the poor and disable among us.


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