IFES Q&A with The Secretary of State for Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Haiti
Gerald Oriol was appointed Haiti’s Secretary of State for the Integration of Persons with Disabilities in October 2011. He oversees a staff of approximately 50 personnel working from five offices throughout the country, providing services to an estimated one million persons with disabilities. Oriol’s agency collaborates with USAID, the World Bank, the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and numerous non-governmental organizations. He serves as a member of President Michel Martelly’s cabinet and has represented Haiti at disability conferences in Qatar, Ecuador and the United States. He holds degrees from the University of Florida and Harvard.
What is the state of governance and civil society in Haiti when it comes to advocating for persons with disabilities?
Although there remains a lot of work to be done in the field of disability in Haiti, the country has made tremendous progress in the past several years with regards to the protection of the rights of persons with disabilities. In 2007, the Bureau of the Secretary of State for the Integration of Persons with Disabilities (BSEIPH) was created under the tutelage of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Work. It is the focal point on disability within the Government of Haiti and strives to develop inclusive policies and programs in favor of persons with disabilities. In 2009, Haiti ratified both the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Inter-American Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities. In 2012, a national bill for the integration of persons with disabilities, after having received an affirmative vote in the lower house, passed the Senate and then the text, now a national law, was promulgated by President Michel Martelly in the official journal. All these important steps towards a more inclusive society and others have been occurring, in large measure, as a result of advocating efforts within civil society, particularly by disabled people’s organizations (DPOs).
Tell us about Haiti’s recently enacted Law for the Integration of Persons with Disabilities and its’ implementation process.
The Law for the Integration of Persons with Disabilities is an important tool for Haiti's estimated one million citizens with disabilities, especially in this critical period of national reconstruction. This law establishes the rules and principles in diverse domains (public housing, education, health, justice, etc.) in order to guarantee equal access and participation of persons with disabilities in all spheres of life. Currently, the Government of Haiti, via BSEIPH, is undertaking efforts to reinforce this law by informing all sectors of society of its content and implications as well as by introducing new laws and regulations to help further develop an inclusive society, such as through the recently created inter-ministerial committee on disability. Although many steps remain to ensure full observance of this law, the public authorities of the country are working, hand-in-hand with civil society, to carry out the obligations set in the law so as to prevent discrimination against persons with disabilities and ensure all citizens, with or without disabilities, are able to exercise their full rights.
You have been involved in the trainings for journalists offered by IFES and the election commission. How will these trainings strengthen coverage of elections in Haiti and raise awareness of the need to include persons with disabilities in the political process?
As a result of the trainings offered by IFES, journalists in the country will be better informed of the electoral process in general and its implications, particularly with regard to the rights of persons with disabilities. The electoral law is clear: steps must be taken to ensure equal access to persons with disabilities desiring to participate in the voting process. BSEIPH is hoping that these journalists will be critical throughout the whole electoral process to help ensure persons with disabilities desiring to work with the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) are given equal opportunity, that steps are taken to facilitate access to the voting process, and that the theme of disability and inclusion is raised in the electoral debates to help ensure candidates take stands on issues affecting the lives of persons with disabilities. Obviously, the trainings alone will not be able to remove all the barriers persons with disabilities face as citizens striving to exercise their rights. However, it will still serve as a great opportunity to sensitize journalists and help bring attention to the situation of persons with disabilities in Haiti and the possibilities that we have as a society to create a new paradigm based on equal rights and inclusion.
Tell us about your past involvement in advocacy work to ensure people with disabilities are included and participate in the electoral process.
Although I was born with a form of muscular dystrophy, I truly started advocating publicly for the rights of persons with disabilities in 2003 when my sister asked me to write an article about my experience as a citizen with disabilities in Haiti. Since then, I have had the opportunity to serve as a technical member and then president of the national council for the rehabilitation of persons with disabilities. Furthermore, in 2009, together with several friends and family members, I created the Fondation J'Aime Haïti (I Love Haiti Foundation), which aims to create development opportunities for at-risk youths. Under my leadership, and with the support of some close collaborators, Fondation J'Aime Haïti launched several initiatives on behalf of the disabled community, including a radio program that aims to raise awareness on disability and an income-generating program that aims to help disadvantaged persons with disabilities gain some financial autonomy. While I have never managed a specific program aiming to facilitate the participation of persons with disabilities in the electoral process, through my involvement in civil society, in the public sector and in the political arena, I have been able to contribute indirectly to efforts leading toward that goal.
What improvements need to be made to empower people with disabilities and increase their participation in the political process?
There is no single strategy to empower persons with disabilities and increase their participation in the political process. However, in my opinion, regardless of the ultimate approach put in place, it is essential to work closely with DPOs, the CEP and political parties. First, the DPOs, as the formal representatives of persons with disabilities, are unquestionably fundamental actors who must be involved early on in the process in order to ensure the adopted strategy reflects the needs and aspirations of the disabled community in all its components. Indeed, “nothing about us without us” is a deep-rooted principle in Haiti that must be closely observed. Secondly, the CEP, as the recognized agency in charge of organizing elections in the country, is obviously an important actor to work with in order to ensure genuine steps are taken during the electoral process to facilitate participation of persons with disabilities as potential personnel engaged in the electoral process, voters and candidates. Thirdly, political parties must also be included in the process in order to ensure the aspirations of the disabled community are respected and integrated in their agendas via their candidates and elected officials.
How will your office’s development framework, incorporating non-discrimination and equality, act as an authoritative and representative voice of persons with disabilities?
The CEP will manage the electoral process, including all related activities aimed to facilitate inclusion of persons with disabilities. BSEIPH recognizes that disability is a crosscutting issue and strives as much as possible to mainstream disability in the agenda of other sectors of society, including the CEP. However, we will definitely be proactive and will aim to work closely with the CEP and other actors, such as IFES and DPOs, to ensure that every effort is made to fully respect the rights of persons with disabilities throughout the whole electoral process. For instance, BSEIPH recently collaborated with the Office of National Identification to facilitate registration of hundreds of persons with disabilities that didn't have an ID card, which is required in order to participate in the electoral process. To sum up, Haiti's national law on disability and the conventions that the country ratified with respect to the rights of disabled persons will be our compass. These legal texts clearly state that persons with disabilities, as citizens with equal rights, are entitled to participate in the electoral process like all citizens and that authorities must take all measures to facilitate full participation. As such, BSEIPH will monitor the process closely and also collaborate with all to ensure that the elections are as inclusive as possible and that lessons learned can serve the nation in future elections.