KINGSTON, JAMAICA—He’d been invited here as guest speaker at the inaugural Disability Friendly Awards last November and Ontario Lt.-Gov. David Onley was about to discover how the other half lives.
The man speaking to him — eyeball to eyeball, 1950s polio victim to polio victim, aged wheelchair beside modern scooter — was Don Taylor.
Don, in his early sixties, is a prime advocate on the island and educator at the Sir John Golding Rehabilitation Centre; and he’s been wearing the same pair of leg braces for 35 years, held together with steel scraps from friends in the car repair business.
“It was astonishing,” Onley recalls. “In Ontario, every two years you’re eligible to get a new pair of the braces. The province pays 75 per cent. For my most recent pair I paid $700 or $800 net.”
A couple weeks after Onley left, Taylor fell, broke his leg and separated his shoulder.
The province’s lieutenant-governor wouldn’t forget Taylor, nor the thousands trapped in a society emerging from decades of neglect of its citizens with disabilities and little money to grease the process of change.
Five months later, Onley was back — this time with a team of Canadians and Americans committed to jerking the once-leading edge rehab centre into the 21st century.
Half an hour into last month’s tour of the centre, at the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies in the foothills of the Blue Mountain range, the doctors, therapists, architects, Rotarians and builders had concluded that the mission was possible, though not a slam dunk.
“There’s a desperate need to do something,” says Dr. Geoff Fernieof the Toronto Rehab Centre. “There’s a hell of lot of people whose lives are unfulfilling, simply because they are not able to get rehabilitation.
“The economy is going downhill; it’s very worrying. There are all sorts of competing priorities. We can’t solve all those problems, but whatever the obstacles, we must do something. That’s what motivates me.”
Less than six months after his initial visit, Onley’s team has prepared a master plan to rebuild, reposition and re-energize the John Golding centre. And on Saturday night, Onley is to give a sneak preview to some of Toronto’s most educated and powerful citizens — graduates and supporters of the University of the West Indies attending its elite annual gala.
The gala exists to honour high-achieving people of Caribbean descent and fund the several scholarships it delivers. If Onley’s dream is to become a reality for Taylor and others who don’t have the means to travel to Miami and elsewhere for their rehab needs, it is this group that will have to fund the makeover.
“This is bigger than Jamaica,” said Seth Ramocan, the island’s active consul general stationed in Toronto. “This brings world focus on how other than First World countries address accessibility issues.”
John Golding arrived in Jamaica from England just ahead of the polio outbreak of 1954. An orthopedic specialist, he set up a treatment centre for the victims and when the numbers swelled he decided to stay.
A sort of Renaissance man, he built the complex from scratch, adding elements as he saw the need. A rehab centre to reinvigorate failed muscles; a prosthetics and orthotics shop for those needing limbs and braces; a shoemaking shop that churns out low-cost, though decidedly unstylish footwear; a residence for students who can’t access island schools; a swimming pool for rehab; recreational facilities now used by Jamaican Paralympic athletes like Sylvia Grant.
He became a hero of the poor and is considered a national hero. They named the centre after him when he died in 1996 but it has fallen into disrepair and neglect, despite the efforts of people like staff physiotherapistSuzanne Harris-Henry and Taylor.
Like Onley, Taylor had polio as a child. He was one of the lucky Jamaican kids to grab a spot at the experimental school for children with disabilities that Golding started.
Taylor has grown impatient with the slow pace of progress on the accessibility file. And he welcomes the burst of energy that has come to the centre since the interest from Canada.
“Sir John’s seen as the poor people’s hospital,” Taylor tells the Canadians. “People with means go abroad.”
To tour the once-proud facilities is to understand why.
The first stop at the orthotics shop is a downer — a tired-looking tiny space. The equipment works, but the technology is old. In the GTA alone one could find 20 to 25 facilities, not including hospitals, that make orthotic devices and braces.
The shoemaking facility churns out one design, “really, really ugly-looking orthotic shoes. You have a choice of shoe or boot,” Onley says of his initial visit.
“I started thinking of the different places I had gone to, about a dozen that would make custom-made shoes. There is a store on Kennedy with 50 to 70 different models, most of them stylish . . .
“By the time I got to the orthopedic shoemaking facility what I saw was a machine from post-World War 2 Britain.
The top guy here, Basil Johnson, surveys the rows of identical shoes, sighs and admits to the visitors: “Y’know, I’m tired.”
He should be. He’s 76 years old and had to return from retirement when a replacement was not found. He has trainees, but they don’t embrace the task as enthusiastically as he did. He’s a polio victim who learned the job in this very shop.
As soon as Onley was appointed Ontario’s representative of the Queen in 2007, he made it clear he’d use his platform to advocate for people with special needs. “Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine” it would spread to the Caribbean, he said Friday.
But having seen the need, he couldn’t just return home to advocate for Ontarians alone.
At the core of the Caribbean challenge is this: hundreds of citizens with disabilities have no opportunity and no options. Polio has been eradicated, but the patients continue to arrive, thanks to strokes, gunshot wounds and accidents on the roads and on farms.
The Golding centre has room for 30 adult men, 30 children and eight females. By World Health Organization standard the island of three million needs five to 10 times the capacity. Then, there are those who arrive from the rest of the English-speaking Caribbean as this is the sole public facility that can address their needs.
Jamaica may have been the first country to adopt the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and is a leader in the Caribbean, but it is decades behind a place like Ontario.
Public accessibility is an emerging dream. Curb cuts are sporadic in the capital. Finding an accessible vehicle for public transportation is a near impossibility. And at the Golding Centre, founded in the 1950s ahead of many industrialized nations, innovation has given way to despair despite heroic efforts of front-line staff and advocates.
In short, the government has no money. And the populace has higher priorities than equal access for its more vulnerable citizens.
That has not dimmed the ambitions of Taylor or of Senator Floyd Morris, a visually impaired advocate and politician, or Christine Hendricks of the Jamaica Council for Persons with Disabilities — all attending a meeting with the Canadians this day.
“It’s an exciting time to be alive, to be honest,” Hendricks tells the Canadian team. “Jamaica is ready to take off and at times we do not know how. It’s good to be guided.”
For Gordon Shirley, University of the West Indies principal, former Jamaican ambassador to the U.S. and a powerhouse on the island, the Canadian presence is a huge boost to the local advocates toiling on the file with slow and limited progress.
With Onley’s lightning quick push for changes, Shirley and others got the government to complete a memorandum of understanding that will turn the Golding centre over to the university. Golding’s son, Mark, the country’s justice minister, says Onley’s initiative provided the impetus to achieve quickly what might normally take years.
“Everything in due season,” he says. “This is a fantastic coming together of different strains that have merged. It gives Jamaica access to the minds of the people at the pinnacle of rehab care in the world. And it happened because the lieutenant-governor saw the centre and recognized the need and the potential.”
Joining Onley on the fact-finding mission last month were Carleton University, the Toronto Rehab Centre, the Mike Holmes group and the Rotary club. Tim Hortons and Scotiabank chipped in assistance.
Jon Sader, from the American energy group Sader Power, and his team worked with TV home renovation star Mike Holmes to quickly put together a master plan for the project.
Onley says his role of convening the enablers is nearly over.
“There is such a significant Jamaica diaspora here in the GTA and a large Caribbean contingent with a fair amount of resources at their disposal. I feel that if they knew about the state of affairs they would do something to improve it.”
The group plans a public campaign to raise the funds that will remake the rehab centre.
Dr. Paula Dawson, the island’s only rehab specialist spells out the need:
“We need the space, the facilities for a residency program. Help me train and educate others so they can go out and serve St. Vincent, Grenada and the rest of the Caribbean. Each one teach one.”