KINGSTON, Jamaica – Claudia Gordon abruptly went deaf as a child in rural Jamaica, and lost much more than her hearing as a result.
She was pulled out of school and kept at home to perform chores. Neighbors shunned, and sometimes mocked her. Some of the people who took care of her periodically hauled her off to rituals where soothsayers would attempt to cure the medical condition, still mysterious to this day, that caused her deafness.
"I was confused by my sudden hearing loss and filled with a sense of hopelessness from being ostracized for it. Why can't I go to school? Why am I not being taken along with the other kids in my family during outings? Why do people stare? Why do they laugh at me?" Gordon, now a prominent lawyer and disability rights advocate in Washington, recalls of those traumatic days in the early 1980s.
Her experience was similar to that of many physically and mentally disabled people in the Caribbean, where resources and basic protections for the disabled are often scarce. But things appear to be gradually improving after years of struggle.
Jamaica last week passed a watershed law that will, among other things, prohibit workplace discrimination and create a special tribunal to rule on complaints made by disabled citizens. The adoption of the law follows similar actions taken in Bahamas and Guyana. Sign language interpreters are seen more often on Caribbean TV stations and schools are becoming more inclusive of students with disabilities.
"It's catching on in the region," Gloria Goffe, a blind Jamaican who is coordinator of the nonprofit Combined Disabilities Association, said of efforts to protect people with disabilities.
Jamaica's long-awaited Disabilities Act was shepherded by Sen. Floyd Morris, who made history last year when he was sworn in as the first blind president of the country's Senate. He describes the law as a historic achievement for the roughly 163,000 disabled Jamaicans.
But Morris cautioned there is a long way to go before pervasive stigma can be banished.
"I would say 65 percent of the population still sees people with disabilities as charity cases," he said in his office at the University of the West Indies, where he leads a regional research center studying issues affecting the disabled.
The changing landscape for disabled citizens will be measured most by maturing attitudes, said Gordon, who had to leave her Caribbean homeland to fully realize her potential. She moved to New York at age 11 and blossomed after being given the opportunity to work hard and excel.
"Laws cannot regulate attitude and sadly the perception and attitude toward people with disabilities can be more disabling than our disability in and of itself," Gordon wrote in an email to The Associated Press in her personal capacity.
Shattering the early preconceptions about her abilities, Gordon is now chief of staff at a contract compliance office in the U.S. Department of Labor. Last year she served a high-profile stint as a liaison between President Barack Obama's administration and the disabled community.
Around the globe, the treatment of people with disabilities varies widely from country to country, but discrimination and barriers to inclusion are commonplace. Those problems are most severe in the developing world, where the World Health Organization says roughly 80 percent of people with disabilities live.
Nowhere in the region is the problem of stigma and access to basic health services more serious than in Haiti, the hemisphere's poorest country. The magnitude-7.0 earthquake in January 2010 amplified the problem, leaving thousands of people with lost limbs, some with multiple amputations.
"Their situation is very worrying, because without access to services they become a burden on families, which increases their vulnerability," said Patrick Senia, field program director in Haiti for nonprofit Handicap International.
Even in wealthier, more inclusive countries in the Caribbean where treatment of disabled people is making advances, the challenges are many. Relatively few buildings have wheelchair-accessible ramps and toilets. Discrimination in hiring has long been rampant. Schools lack physical therapists and other care.
New disability laws will have to beat back harsh realities, the most pressing of which is financial. Advocates stress that it is one thing to pass legislation and another to ensure implementation, particularly in heavily indebted countries. For instance, economically struggling Guyana passed its disabilities act in 2010 but compliance has been spotty.
"Next year, we are going to require all public buildings to be user friendly with ramps. At my own ministry, we don't have an elevator, so all the services that the public and the differently-able need will be on the ground floor," Social Services Minister Jennifer Webster said.
But even as they grapple with overcoming numerous challenges, hopes for the future are rising among many disabled youngsters in the Caribbean.
"I am definitely going to be a doctor," 9-year-old Arron Logan said confidently as he walked with the shuffling steps of a relatively mild case of cerebral palsy at an under-resourced Kingston school that integrates disabled children with able-bodied peers. "I'm not sure what kind yet, but I do know that's what I will be."
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