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Haiti: After the storm

By Mike Thomson
Today programme

Jermen, who was born without arms

Jermen was born without arms. Her experience is typical of many children with disabilities in Haiti.

"I still remember my 10th birthday. It was on that day I was told that my parents had abandoned me. I knew then why I was here," she says.

Jermen, who is now 18, was lucky. She was given a place at the St Vincent Center for Disabled Children, one of only a handful of places in Haiti that help children with disabilities make the most of themselves.

The UN estimates that there may be as many as 200,000 children with mental or physical handicaps in Haiti. Many find themselves on the streets.

More expensive to educate and look after than other children, they are often the first to be pushed out by parents struggling for survival in what is the western hemisphere's poorest country.

The number of abandoned children has grown, following the destruction caused by four hurricanes last year.


Dr Alix Lassegue
Dr Lassegue says disabled people in Haiti are shunned by society

At Port-au-Prince's State University Hospital there is further evidence of the stigma faced by children with disabilities.

The unit for abandoned babies is a cramped little room. Two toddlers share one of the beds. In all I counted 32 children crammed together. All but two had mental or physical disabilities.

The hospital's director, Dr Alex Lassegue, says he is doing what he can to empty the ward and find all these children better homes but fears it may not be easy.

"I believe attitudes towards those with disabilities here are affected by a certain fear, a sort of misunderstanding," he says.

"Anything that is different makes people uneasy."

He blames the attitudes of the present on the prejudices of the past.

"People with disabilities were often shunned by society," he says.

"There has been so much strife in this country that they were marginalized. It was felt that there was no way to deal with them given all the many other problems.

Children at St Vincent Centre for Disabled Children
Haitian disabled children struggle to find a permanent home

"They were considered a burden to society."

Julie Bergeron, head of child Protection in Haiti for the UN children's charity Unicef, says finding homes for abandoned children is difficult.

She points to the fact that out of the 600 or so child care institutions in the country, less than a quarter are thought to be legal. Many of the rest are not monitored because of a lack of resources.

Consequently, the organisation advises against placing children in them.

"Recently we visited some of the orphanages and we know that children were abused and raped," she says.

"There was also malnutrition. A child of three years old weighed 18lb, it is very, very little."

'Never give up'

Haiti's recently appointed Secretary of State for the Integration of the Disabled, Dr Michel Pean, says a slang word for people with disabilities here is cocobai.

It means, he says, that a "handicapped person is absolutely nothing".

Child at St Vincent Centre for Disabled Children
There are hopes that attitudes towards disabled people in Haiti will improve

But Dr Pean, who is blind, insists that his appointment has enabled him to "motivate and sensitise" the population and "encourage a better attitude towards persons with disabilities".

Not that 18-year-old Jermen has waited for such help. Soon after arriving at the St Vincent Centre for Disabled Children she learnt to compensate for having no arms by learning to write and eat with her feet.

She has now capped that by learning to play the piano with them too and is teaching other children at the centre to dance.

"I would advise all children with disabilities to take care but also to be brave and never to give up," she says.

"The most important thing is to realise that the physical disability is secondary. The most important thing is your brain. You can use that to get over physical problems."

Jermen seems to have already proved her point.

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