“She’s at the age that if she’s going to improve, it’s best to challenge her,” whispers Gillian Fergusson, a Scottish physiotherapist, as she watches the girl. “It’s better than letting her walk with a crutch for three years — and then trying to take it away.”
So when it’s Coralie’s turn with the Haitian therapist-in-training working under Fergusson’s supervision, the first thing he does is take away the crutch.
Hand in hand, the two weave their way through the equipment, the girl dutifully bending her artificial knees. Each step makes a soft click.
Coralie Brutus’s disability has nothing to do with the earthquake that struck Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010, producing thousands of amputees almost overnight. Nevertheless, she’s a beneficiary of the relief effort.
The earthquake poured attention, money and expertise into Haiti. Nearly three years later, thousands of quake victims have gotten prosthetic limbs, orthotic devices and rehabilitation services that were once rare here. So have hundreds of people whose disabilities are sometimes worse and once were even less likely to get attention. They include children with cerebral palsy and spina bifida, adults with stroke and spinal cord injuries, and people with birth defects such as Coralie.
The earthquake is also advancing the country’s disability rights movement. The destruction of 300,000 buildings is providing an opportunity for the ones built to replace them to be handicap-accessible. Hundreds of Haitians are learning new jobs as makers of prosthetics and as rehabilitation assistants.
The catastrophe may also have raised consciousness in a place where disabled people used to be called “kokobes” — good-for-nothings in Creole.
“The perception of people with disabilities changed a lot after the earthquake. Everybody realized they can become disabled at any time,” said Claire Perrin Houdon, a manager at Handicap International. The charity, headquartered in Lyon, France, has provided more prosthetic limbs and rehabilitation to earthquake amputees than any other organization here.
About 223,000 people were killed and 300,000 injured by the disaster. Of those, about 4,000 had amputations. But, points out Gerald Oriol Jr., the country’s 32-year-old secretary of state for the integration of people with disabilities, “before the earthquake there were already 800,000 disabled people in Haiti. We cannot forget them.”
‘It was so lovely’
One of them was Coralie.
She arrived at the center in May 2011, moving like a seal on two hands and deformed feet at the end of kneeless legs. That might well have been her lifelong form of locomotion. But when the Handicap International people saw her, they said there was an alternative.