Monday, February 22, 2010

The strongest people 'know how to be weak'

"You know what – it’s easy to be brave. Just remain yourself in the face of adversity. I love simple people. The ones who don’t change at every detour on the road of life…Maybe this is exactly what binds me to these people who are affected by an intellectual disability. Their simplicity—it’s not something transitory; it is innate and natural. Their courage is not overinflated; rather, it is silent—and it falters. Because courage also sometimes means knowing how to be afraid. This past weekend, Gustave, my taxi driver in Port-au-Prince, told me that the strongest people are those who know how to be weak. Surely, a 43-year-old man who survived the catastrophe only to have to dig through the rubble to find his three lost children, surely he would not tell me a lie." Jonathan Boulet-Groulx, L'Arche Haiti

The strongest people 'know how to be weak'

I met with a friend of mine yesterday and she told me about a friend of hers – Canadian photographer Jonathan Boulet-Groulx – who is in Haiti working at a home for people with intellectual disabilities run by L’Arche. You can read his moving blog at Mwen pa fou.

This got me thinking about my three trips to Haiti. Six years ago, my husband D’Arcy and I volunteered at an orphanage for a week in Port-Au-Prince. That’s where we met two children we would eventually adopt. During that trip, we visited Wings of Hope – a home for children with disabilities (photo above from the Wings of Hope website). Many of the children had cerebral palsy. We had taken some old but still useful equipment the physiotherapists were no longer using at the former Bloorview site. We also brought books. I'll never forget the excitement of a teenage girl when she saw we had a book with the alphabet in sign language. She was deaf.

The home was run by Americans, and it was shocking to learn that the kids never got out. We were told that disability was viewed as a manifestation of evil – a curse – in Haiti, and that most children with disabilities were abandoned at birth. People with differences were ridiculed and families didn’t visit the home.

Out in the streets, people with disabilities simply did not exist. You did not see them! In addition to the stigma that kept people hidden, Port-Au-Prince can’t be navigated from a wheelchair or walker. The streets are steep, littered with rocks and potholes and lined with open sewers.

It made me sad to think of those delightful children hidden away, separated from their families and the community, children who had so much to contribute and deserved to be able to learn and explore outside the walls of the home.

Handicap International estimates that between 2,000 and 3,000 people in the country have had amputations as a result of the earthquake in January. How will these people be integrated back into a society that shuns people with disabilities, where three out of four people are unemployed, and where the little work available is hard physical labour?

We can only hope that the increased visibility of disability and difference will break common stereotypes and increase opportunities. I salute Jonathan Boulet-Groulx and the work he’s doing to bring awareness to children and adults with intellectual disabilities in Haiti, people who have been particularly marginalized in that country. Bravo! Louise


Thank you for this interesting and heartbreaking post. While I wondered what would happen to children with disabilities during the recovery from the earthquake, I had no idea that their lives were perhaps even more abysmal before because of their disabilities. That makes me so sad but grateful to the gentleman you quoted. Thanks, Louise!

Reading about disability being viewed as a manifestation of evil and a curse in Haiti made my heart sink. It breaks my heart to think about the Izzy's of Haiti and how they are perceived and treated. Thank you this post and also for the link to the awesome Mwen pa fou blog.

Thanks Elizabeth and Erika -- have you read The Short Bus: A Journey Beyond Normal? I'm hoping to interview the author and the part I was reading last night talked about how that concept of disability = sin, evil appears to have been part of many religions.