Published on Voices

Last December, James Dooley Sullivan packed his wheelchair and travelled to Jamaica. Sullivan, an animator and visual arts video editor at the World Bank Group, wanted to see first-hand what it’s like to be disabled in a developing country. He shares his experience and his own history in a video and a series of blog posts.

© Laura Fravel

Luckily, when we land in Kingston we are greeted by the only leased van in all of Jamaica with a wheelchair lift. It fits me, my chair, my colleague Peter and all of the camera gear we’ll need to document my adventures learning about disability access in the developing world. What the van doesn’t have is working shock absorbers. I have to brace myself on a seat cushion as our driver Dereck tries to evade pot holes on the way to our hotel.

Whenever I check into a room I have to make some quick assessments. Here in Kingston, the carpet is thick and hard to push through, while the bed is spacious and at a suitable height. My new 17-inch wide chair just barely squeezes into the bathroom but the sink has a granite slab that whacks my knees. In the win column – there’s a handheld showerhead I can reach. In the no-win column – the toilet is really low and will need my complete concentration when in use.

© Laura Fravel

In the morning, it’s time to head out and meet Patrick Rodin in nearby St. Catherine's parish, where he’s set up a cottage and wheelchair repair business. We shake hands and size each other up. Patrick is muscular, with a megawatt smile framing a dazzling gold tooth. He is chair-shaped, like me, wearing a bright blue soccer jersey that sets off his dark skin. A bullet damaged his spinal cord 22 years ago at the T4 level, so he still has good use of his upper torso and arms.

We tour his custom-designed shop where a huge array of tools and miscellaneous parts hang from the ceiling at a perfect height for grabbing while seated. If you’re walking upright you’d bash your head and bloody your nose, but for me, it’s sheer genius. If I had designed the shop, I probably would have put everything on low shelves and spent my day trying to reach into boxes. I’m struck by this elegant solution and get the first glimpse into how Patrick has adapted his environment to work for him.

We wheel under some large shady trees, in deference to my Irish complexion, to talk. Patrick tells me that one day he took a photograph of the prime minister at an event and sent it to him with a letter asking for assistance. My jaw dropped as I contemplated trying to call up the president of the United States with such a bold request. But Jamaica is a smaller country and the PM arranged for Patrick to move to New York and study wheelchair repair.

For Patrick, New York was where his jaw dropped. He encountered accessible public transportation, elevators, and curb cuts with wide sidewalks. When I prod, he admits he thought about just staying in the U.S. but he felt it was more important to return to Jamaica and help disabled wheelchair users in and around Kingston. “I show them you don’t have to go out there and beg,” he says. “If you achieve, you can help yourself by doing a lot of things.” Later in my air-conditioned hotel room, I lay on my massive bed and wondered if I would have been so selfless.

The next day Patrick and I go check out a local market to get food for dinner. As soon as I exit the van, I encounter gravel and what could be described as tiny impact craters from vehicular traffic. It’s a miniaturized lunar surface beat up by sunlight, tires, and deferred maintenance. I am instantly on guard because if my chair’s footplate snags, it will send me head over heels into a crumpled heap.

Patrick has opted for a motorized scooter, which is a little easier than my manual chair, but neither one of us can move in a straight line. We are constantly seeking the best path forward –like sailboats in a regatta. My colleague Peter has to put down his camera and help me up and down massively steep curbs. At times we have to share the street with cars driving on the left. It’s to be expected in a former British colony, but I’m increasingly disorientated and jittery. Since I’m unable to produce sweat, my core temperature is rising quickly in the 88 degrees heat. Even the camera strapped to my wheelchair has overheated.

“Some of the places we’ve been to are not accessible enough for wheelchairs and stuff like that,” Patrick says in his Jamaican cadence. “If things put in place where person with disability have access to a lot of things, things are more better. Yes, more easy to get around. Here we don’t have the bus with a lift that take you anywhere you want to go.”

This short journey has made me truly appreciate how difficult it is for people in many developing countries to get from point A to point B. Fortunately, Jamaica has passed laws that will someday soon make this city more accessible. But for now, Kingston is much like cities all over the world, where impoverished disabled citizens are confined mostly to their homes because there’s no way to get around safely. In addition, it’s estimated that 80% of the disabled in developing countries actually live in rural areas where accessibility is even more limited than in the cities.

We had planned to continue on and play some basketball with some of Patrick's friends in the afternoon but after only two hours on the street I am exhausted. Even a refreshing coconut cannot revive me. So I head back to the hotel to cool down and reflect.

There are so many things you have to take into consideration when you move around in a wheelchair. How will I keep warm or cool? Will there be stairs? And what about a place to urinate? (Because bouncing down stairs with a full bladder is not fun.) Planning is even more important if I’m moving at night. I need reflectors or a vest to ensure I’m visible to cars. At home in the United States, I will do a Google street view of my destination to check out the lay of the land and plot my approach. But Kingston doesn’t yet have this feature. Then again, if I’d seen beforehand what I was encountering then maybe I would just chicken out and stay home, which is not a good mindset if you’re trying to accomplish a goal. I really understand now on a visceral level what it’s like to be disabled in a wonderful, but chaotic city without the support I need.

The final day we stop at a scenic overlook so Peter can take some shots of Kingston and I chat with our driver Dereck. It turns out, he acquired the only for-hire wheelchair-lift van in the country when his mother was diagnosed with a degenerative disease. He’s seeking a loan to expand his services because there’s a huge demand for transportation from the disabled. I’m excited to hear about his plans since promoting private-sector solutions is a big part of the World Bank’s mission.

I’d like to say I had a very relaxed and meaningful final dinner with Patrick. The fried fish was crispy and smelled heavenly. But it’s hard to enjoy a meal with cameras everywhere and a tight schedule. It’s time for me to head back to my edit suite in Washington, DC and put all of these experiences, interviews and conversations together into a cohesive video story. As an animator, I’m mixing scenes in my head of crazy avatars alongside my new IRL (In Real Life) friends and experiences. It’s jumbled right now, but I know I have something important to say, and I can’t wait to get to it.

Read part one | Part three


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