While we rebuild better, let’s consider the needs of the disabled residents in our midst. It also makes good commercial sense to encourage them to participate more actively in their own welfare: The resultant improvement in their lifestyle would put more money into circulation and reduce pressure on the National Health Insurance system. We would also boost the Virgin Islands’ attraction for disabled tourists.
The “recycled promises” in the recent Speech from the Throne included a pledge to “pursue additional road traffic legislation to improve accessibility for ‘differently-abled’ persons” as previously promised in 2016. The speech also promised to “reintroduce the Human Rights Commission Act” provided for in the 2007 Constitution. The commission established under that act would hear complaints about violations of “those fundamental rights and freedoms enjoyed without distinction of any kind, such as … disability,” as well as violations of the constitutional protection from discrimination, meaning “affording different treatment to different persons on any ground such as … disability.”
Despite official guidelines for public transport, most vehicles in the territory still pick up and set down their passengers in the traffic because vehicles are imported from Japan (where they also drive on the left) via the United States, for which they have been customised for driving on the right (for example, with their entrance doors opening onto the sidewalk).
Store owners should review the access to their premises and their interior layout and train their staff in customer care. I gashed my leg on the sharp corner of a low wooden display unit in a menswear store over-crammed with goods on display. A sales assistant merely glanced at it and declared that it had never happened before. However, a tourist in a wheelchair would be unable to mount the steps outside.
The cruise lines are aware of the aging populations of most industrialised countries and actively market their itineraries and excursions to seniors, who have the leisure time, finances and inclination to travel to new places. We have greatly improved accessibility for shopping with the introduction of the Tortola Pier Park, but how would the disabled fare who want to explore historic Main Street, which is overdue for experimental pedestrianisation?
Honorary belonger Geoff Holt has publicly shared the sadness and anger felt by the sailing community at the International Paralympic Committee announcement in September that it has rejected World Sailing’s bid for sailing to be included in 2024 games in Paris, meaning that the earliest it might return to the Paralympics would now be 2028. They had worked hard to have the sport reinstated following a similar announcement in 2015 that it had been excluded from the 2020 Paralympic games in Tokyo because it did not meet the criteria of participation in more than 32 countries.
I would urge the government and opposition to cast politics aside on this occasion and discuss with the BVI Tourist Board, the Royal VI Yacht Club and Sailability BVI (four sailors who represented the VI in Athens for the 2011 Special Olympics World Summer Games appeared on a set of VI stamps earlier in the year) to consider offering Mr. Holt the opportunity to propose some international Paralympic sailing event during 2022, a Paralympics off year.
Mr. Holt was an 18-year-old from Hampshire working on boats in the Caribbean when he broke his neck diving into shallow waters in Tortola in 1984. He was paralysed from the chest down, with the use of his arms but only limited movement in his hands. He spent 11 months in hospital.
He had already skippered a boat across the Atlantic three times, but as a quadriplegic he had to overcome his physical disabilities and convince sponsors to back him to become, in 2009, the first quadriplegic sailor to sail across the Atlantic. He did it on a 20-metre wheelchair-accessible catamaran called Impossible Dream. In 2011, Mr. Holt was awarded an MBE for his services to disabled sailing, as well as the prestigious Yachtsman of the Year award.
Mr. Holt returned to Tortola in 2013 to a hero’s welcome and was made an honorary belonger, but he was so shocked at Road Town’s disabled unfriendliness that he formulated proposals to help disabled residents by promoting work on our infrastructure and so on in order to market the VI as a centre for disabled tourism (see “Honorary belonger pushes ‘disabled tourism’” in the April 4, 2013 edition of the Beacon).
Beacon special report
The Beacon then published a special deport on disabilities in the VI on April 18, 2013, trying to stimulate discussion of the issues by establishing an online forum and urging the government to translate its draft policy on the protection of the rights of the disabled into legislation as soon as possible.
I commented in turn on the muted response to your report, but remarked that the whole territory could benefit from disabled residents being reintegrated into the community, especially as a disproportionate number were “grey heads” whose contributions to society had been limited by their invisibility. Interviewers might profile their needs and any contribution to the community they’d like to make (such as recounting their memories for a VI oral history project, giving musical presentations, reading stories in children’s libraries, and so on, as I suggested in an April 25, 2013 commentary).
I also proposed the production of an access directory, sponsored by businesses whose premises met minimum standards of access, distributed on cruise ships, in hotels and so on, with feedback forms enclosed, encouraging comments on your special report and any specific concerns encountered, as well as a survey of all tourist attractions in the territory, including potential ones (e.g. underdeveloped historical land sites and proposed conversions to museums), to encourage optimisation of their accessibility.
Ironically, within a few weeks of that commentary, I was on crutches myself (see “The pill that changed my life” in the May 3, 2018 Beacon), cautiously avoiding the cracks between paving stones along Waterfront Drive.