This is the first of a two-part commentary.

I applaud the Beacon’s editorial of last week, “Disabled get short shrift in VI,” pushing our political leaders to translate a draft policy on the protection of the rights of the disabled into legislation as soon as possible (to encompass every type of disability, physical and cognitive). However, it was disappointing to find no response elsewhere in that issue to the vital issues raised in your April 18 special report on disabilities in the Virgin Islands. Is the subject taboo in public, only a matter to be discussed in the homes of residents unfortunate enough to have housebound relatives and/or friends? Does the whole village refuse to raise up the existence of such people in their midst?

It appears that we are so obsessed with arguments for and against investing in major projects to attract the tourist dollar that we are ill prepared to spend public funds on improving the daily lives of residents, reversing the employment policy which favours our own. It was recognition of that fact of life that underlay the special report sidebar titled “Honorary Belonger Pushes ‘Disabled Tourism.’” Disabled activist Geoff Holt thinks that the only way to help the disabled in the VI appears to be to promote the necessary work on the territory’s infrastructure and so on as a money-earner generated by our tourist industry. Frankly, however, I would like to see action on Mr. Holt’s agenda with residents equally in mind.

Far from home

Our eyes moistened as the ballet dancer who had lost her foot in Boston smilingly expressed her determination to run in next year’s marathon. Perhaps we felt impelled to contribute to a fund for such victims, fleeting visitors to our homes from thousand of miles away. But what are we doing to help our disabled neighbours — who may be unable to walk since birth, blinded in a road accident or, perhaps, the victims of a crime — whose needs have been overlooked in our efforts to maximise our income?

They may be surrounded by relatives and neighbours too busy with their own affairs to “lower them into the pool,” like two shut-ins I once knew. I discovered their sad stories through membership in voluntary groups. In one case, an ex-cavalry officer was confined to the top apartment of a building by its owners, who wanted to ease him out of it. The other man, who had to furnish his apartment in a much larger block with cardboard boxes, received just one note a year from his rich businessman cousin — on a birthday card accompanying a whole salmon. Yet what stories they had to tell of their younger days when they were still fit.

Personal experience

I owe a great deal to my older brother for teaching me so much out of school. By the age of 10 he had been diagnosed with progressive muscular dystrophy. After repeated falls, he had to be withdrawn from school, and he was given no more than four years to live. However, his Christian faith, indomitable spirit and thirst for self-taught knowledge — and my diminutive mother’s amazing ability to lift his enormous frame from his bed to his armchair and back — sustained him until I was 14 myself (I was born within a year of his diagnosis). He became adept at driving his manually-controlled wheelchair around our yard, and he filled a notebook with foreign words and phrases, with their English equivalents, though the nearest he got to going abroad was exchanging long letters with a Danish girl. A high point of his week was a visit by the minister’s wife, who came to pass on the village news and play a version of  “sevens” with cards depicting scenes from The Pilgrim’s Progress (she believed that conventional card games were sinful). If my brother were still alive, how he would have enjoyed a magic carpet to the VI, but what would he have found here?

State of the VI

Crossing Sir Olva Georges Plaza a few weeks ago after a vigorous Saturday morning walk, I struck up a conversation with a cruise ship passenger sitting in his wheelchair, apparently all alone. To my surprise, his daughter had until recently been living in the small English village where my brother and I were born. Then his wife emerged from a nearby store, off-limits to his wheelchair, and mildly commented on the lack of suitable places to take him. When I muttered without conviction that “they” were trying to do something about it, he retorted forthrightly — “they’d better” — in a tone of voice that implied “or else visitors like me will go somewhere more considerate.”

His wife grasped his chair and asked me to suggest an interesting place to go. They were not fussy about what it should be. Without thinking, I replied that Main Street should be quieter on a Saturday morning and would have more to see than Waterfront Drive. I suggested a very popular store beyond Fonseca Corner and hurried off towards a car park near Admin Drive, anxious to clean up after my long walk.

As I passed an alleyway, I spotted a stream of cars coming up from the old post office and was horror-struck at the thought of those visitors having to step aside for them, as negotiating the high kerbs and narrow, broken sidewalks would be out of the question.  I dashed through to Main Street, but could not see them. I later visited the store I had recommended, thinking that it had an entrance ramp, but there was none. The sales assistant told me that one had been proposed some years ago, but they had never got around to it. Clearly, they had no interest in inviting in either residents or tourists who happened to need one.

One of my favourite boyhood books was The Roadmender (1913), a slim volume of reminiscences by a man who maintained a stretch of road in southern England. He took pride in filling in the potholes, since the fine ladies and gentlemen passing by in their horse-drawn carriages or early motorcars, without a glance, depended on him for their safety from serious accidents. I see a similar pride in their work in the Public Works Department men waiting before dawn at the roadside with their weed-eaters, and hoot or wave at them as I pass. Some years after first reading this book, I learnt that its author was in fact a housebound woman who longed to be of service to the passers-by below her window and wistfully imagined the scene about which she wrote.

I think, too, of an old lady who walked up to her local store for little things every day, until she tripped over a loose paving stone. She recovered from her injuries, but had lost all confidence in going out by herself. She just sat alone in her home hoping that a friend would call by to share the refreshments she had ready to hand. We may rarely see a resident venturing around Road Town in a wheelchair, but it would greatly improve the quality of life of our local shut-ins if they could safely do so and enjoy the simple things the rest of us take for granted.

To be continued next week, with specific suggestions for change.