Raising awareness for the disabled in Cayman

 The guide dog was supposed to be a turning point for Keisha Martin, blind in both eyes since she was a young child. She was just getting her new career at the George Town police station. The Lions Club had spent months raising money for a guide dog, who would be her constant companion and her eyes. She was sent to the US to train with her new dog, Keyma, a two-year-old golden retriever and when Martin got back to Cayman she was ready to be more independent.

But the people in Cayman were not ready. While the dog was trained to sit at her feet under her desk, her supervisor would not let the dog in the building so the dog was tied up at a tree outside. Most restaurants did not let her go in with her dog. While some places like Scotiabank and Outback Restaurant welcomed them there were too many shops and government agencies that would not let her guide dog into their buildings. More and more she started to leave Keyma at home and use him less and less. With lack of use, Keyma was losing his guiding skills and he was acting up. About a year later, Martin realised that she would have to send the dog back to the school. There was no point in having a guide dog when she could not use him.

It has been seven years since Martin sent the dog back to the US and she still tears up a bit when talking about him. After she sent her dog back to the US, Martin does not know where her dog was sent to; the guide dog provider does not give that information out. She only hopes Keyma is happy and working with her next owner.

Today, Martin moves through the hallways of the police station with confidence. She occasionally touches the wall. Co-workers call out with a greeting or a question and Martin always has an easy smile and knowledgeable response. It was not always that way. For years, she felt that her colleagues did not respect her or her abilities. Too often, she was made fun of or ridiculed. Many co-workers told her that she should stay home and collect cheques from the government.

The turnaround came when Martin completed a 16-month course at a US college, designed for people who are blind or visually impaired, using screen-reading software. This made email, news, and books downloaded from the Internet easily assessable. To Martin, her new computer skills have made Braille the old-fashioned way to read books.

Armed with her new computer skills, Martin flourishes at her job, answering the phone, writing up reports and sending officers out on jobs. While Martin feels that she has earned respect for her ability and experience at work, she also acknowledges that her attitude changed after she got back from college and that is likely a part of it.  She is more open and confident and does not necessarily need to argue her point to get her message across.

“This job brings me a lot of joy and I enjoy working with the public,” says Martin, smiling. “They cuss me out every day. But they can cuss me – it is part of my job.”

Although Martin has become independent, there are still many people with profound disabilities who will never be able to be on their own. To varying degrees, they will always need their families or another caregiver for day-to-day activities. But with training and therapy, they can still achieve skills and contribute to society, says Mary Trumbach, parent of Erik Trumbach, 28, who has Down Syndrome .“I grew up here and it was very insular,” says Trumbach. “A person with a disability was an embarrassment and we hid them away. That is the way it was then.

“As we have grown as a people, the progression of acceptance has not grown as it should have. We still have a lot of work to do, getting full acceptance.”

Another mother, Cathy Frasier, explained that her son Jules was diagnosed with cerebral palsy 26 years ago. At that time, there were limited facilities and therapists that would have helped him gain motor and communication skills.  But in recent months, a speech therapist has been working with Jule and his communication has dramatically increased.

Jule’s family had been planning a boat outing that he was excited about. One night, the family was watching John Foster give the weather report on the local news weather on the news and Jules said, “John Foster he said cold. No boat.”

Jule communicated his ideas and that was a satisfying moment, says Frasier, but she adds how much more he would have achieved, if he had gotten adequate therapy when he was a small child.

For Frasier, Trumbach and Mitzi Callan, the International Day for Persons with Disabilities on 3 December has special meaning. As mothers of adult children who serve on the disability committee,  they are determined  to raise public awareness and social acceptance of  people with disabilities. The committee is also pushing for new legislation that would protect people with disabilities against discrimination and abuse. Physical access to buildings is another key area where they would like to see improvement, more ramps, working elevators and bathrooms that accommodate wheelchairs are needed. The committee is also working with government agencies to try and get more therapists and specialist that can work with a broad age range, from young child to the elderly, which in turn increases the motor and communication skills of those with disabilities.