“I still remember my 10th birthday, “ says Jermen, who was born without arms. “It was on that day I was told that my parents had abandoned me. I knew then why I was here.”
Sadly, this is the fate of most children with disabilities in Haiti. A 2009 BBC News article entitled “Haiti’s Abandoned Children,” details the plight of Jermen and other children like her.
Jermen was fortunate to find herself at St. Vincent Center for Disabled Children, one of a few institutions that care for children with disabilities. According to the article, the United Nations estimates that there may be as many as 200,000 children with mental or physical handicaps in Haiti. Many of these children are abandoned by overwhelmed families who are themselves trying to survive. These kids are often left to fend for themselves in the streets. Their numbers have increased after recent natural disasters such as hurricanes and the 2010 earthquake.
To complicate matters, there is a stigma associated with children with disabilities. People fear what they don’t understand. In Haitian society, those with disabilities are often shunned, seen as a burden. Finding good and safe homes for these children is very challenging.
Julie Bergeron, head of Child Protection in Haiti for the U.N. children’s charity, Unicef, says that there are about 600 child care institutions in Haiti, but only a small number of them is legal. Due to a lack of resources, many of them are not monitored. Therefore, her organization doesn’t recommend placing children in them.
She adds, “Recently we visited some of the orphanages, and we know that children were abused and raped. There was also malnutrition. A child of three years old weighed 18 pounds.”
Further, these children’s disabilities make it harder for them to receive an education. Most Haitian schools don’t accept children with disabilities. A lack of education coupled with disabilities make it almost impossible for these children to become independent adults.
I still remember a blind girl of about 12 years old that I met last year when I volunteered at a free clinic at the Pardieu Evangelical Mission. When I asked her mother if she’s ever gone to school, she said, “No. I can’t go with her, and there’s no one else to help her.”
There is hope, however.
Dr. Michel Pean, who is also blind, was recently appointed Secretary of State for the Integration of the Disabled. He says that Haitians refer to those with disabilities as “kokobe.” He translates the term to mean “a handicapped person is absolutely nothing.” He is convinced that his appointment has made it possible for him to “motivate and sensitize Haitians and encourage a better attitude towards people with disabilities.”
Dr. Pean will be the keynote speaker at the 11th Annual Haitian Health Conference being held on Saturday, April 7th at the Boston University School of Medicine. This is a free conference that will feature clinicians from various disciplines, researchers and students for a day of learning, networking and mentoring.
Dr. Pean will share his perspectives about the difficulties in providing disability services in Haiti. Those interested in attending can get more information by calling: 617-414-7702 or visit www.bmc.org/haitianhealth.htm.
Jermen is a testament to what children with disabilities can accomplish, if given a chance. At St. Vincent Center for Disabled Children, she learned to compensate for her lack of arms by learning to write and eat with her feet. She’s also learned to play the piano with her feet and has taught other kids at the center to dance.